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NASA astronauts are confident Boeing’s Starliner will bring them home

NASA astronauts are confident Boeing’s Starliner will bring them home
NASA astronauts are confident Boeing’s Starliner will bring them home

The two NASA astronauts who flew to the International Space Station last month on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft said Wednesday they have no concerns that the capsule can fly them home safely, even though their return has been postponed indefinitely as NASA and Boeing still try to determine the cause of a series of engine failures and helium leaks.

In a brief press conference from the space station, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, a veteran of two previous space flights, said that “we are absolutely confident” about the return trip and that Starliner had been “really impressive” despite the problems on the way to the station.

However, when he took manual control of the autonomous spacecraft on June 6 as it approached the station, “he could see that the thrust had dropped,” he said. “At that point, of course, we didn’t know why. The failures had just happened. You could see that the thrust had dropped, but it was still impressive.”

Sunita Williams, also on her third space flight, said she had “a really good feeling in her heart that the spacecraft will bring us home without any problems.”

When that will happen, however, is still unclear. NASA and Boeing are continuing to conduct ground tests to determine why five of the spacecraft’s “reaction control thrusters,” used to position the vehicle, stopped working during its approach to the station. Four of the five thrusters eventually came back online and worked properly, allowing Starliner to dock successfully. NASA has announced that it will not attempt to use the fifth thruster on the return trip. The spacecraft is equipped with a total of 28 such thrusters on the service module, which is used to power and provide much of the vehicle’s propulsion.

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In addition to these problems, Starliner has five helium leaks in the propulsion system. NASA has stated that these are small leaks and that the spacecraft has enough helium for the remainder of the mission, which will be used to build up pressure in the propulsion system.

In a separate briefing on Wednesday, Steve Stich, who oversees NASA’s commercial crew program, said the crew could return as early as the end of July if all tests reveal no major problems with the engines. “But we’ll just follow the data step by step and then figure out at the right time when the right opportunity to undock is,” he said.

The mission is Starliner’s first flight with humans on board. It is a test designed to check the vehicle’s performance before NASA allows a full contingent of four astronauts to fly to the space station for stays of up to six months. SpaceX, the other company NASA relies on to transport crews, has been flying astronauts to the space station in its Dragon capsule since 2020.

Williams and Wilmore were originally scheduled to stay on the space station for only about ten days, but NASA then postponed their return three times and finally postponed it indefinitely to better understand the spacecraft’s problems.

Teams conducted tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, mimicking the flight profile to and from the space station to determine what was causing the problems.

“We really take the time to make sure we’ve looked at every stone carefully,” Stich said. “Just to make sure there’s nothing that might surprise us.”

In a briefing late last month, he said the crew members were not stranded in space and there were no plans for a rescue operation. “I want to be clear that Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” he said. “Our plan is to continue to return them on the Starliner and bring them home when the time is right.”

On Wednesday, he reiterated that the “first option today is to bring Butch and Suni back on the Starliner. Right now, we see no reason why that shouldn’t be the case.” Referring to SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, he added: “We have two vehicles, two different systems that we could use for crew return, and so we have a little more time to go through the data and then make a decision if we need to do something differently.”

He added that there was “no discussion about sending another Dragon to rescue the Starliner crew.”

NASA has repeatedly said Starliner is authorized to fly astronauts home in an emergency. Late last month, Wilmore and Williams were given a real-world test when they were forced to board Starliner after a satellite broke apart in orbit, potentially threatening the space station. The debris flew by without a hitch and Starliner “performed exceptionally well and as designed for this eventuality,” NASA flight director Ed Van Cise said in a statement.

While on the station, Williams and Wilmore continued to test the spacecraft, including loading a full crew of four astronauts to test the life support systems.

Williams said being at the orbiting lab feels “like a homecoming.” “It feels good to be floating around. It feels good to be in space and working up here with the International Space Station team. So yeah, it’s great to be up here. I’m not complaining that we’re here a few more weeks.”