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Starliner’s return still weeks away; crew safely trapped in space station

Starliner’s return still weeks away; crew safely trapped in space station
Starliner’s return still weeks away; crew safely trapped in space station

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Veteran NASA astronauts and former Navy test pilots Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams “can well imagine” remaining in space for several more weeks, they said in a NASA update Wednesday.

NASA provided a televised update on the Boeing Starliner and its crew Wednesday afternoon, addressing the delays that turned a week-long trip into a 35-day stay. According to the organization, Wimore and Williams could remain on the International Space Station (ISS) until late summer.

Scientists and engineers are conducting tests to better understand and resolve problems encountered during the Starliner’s launch and flight last month, including some misfiring engines and helium leaks. The tests are expected to be completed by the end of the week.

“I think we’re really working on tracking the data and figuring out when the earliest time is for undocking and landing,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. “I think some of the data suggests optimistically that it could be maybe late July, but we’ll just track the data step by step and figure out at the right time when the right undocking opportunity is.”

While teams try to fly Wimore and Williams off the space station before crew change in mid-August, Starliner is considered safe to return to Earth at any time in an emergency. The ship is currently expected to be able to safely return its crew if they needed to evacuate the space station on short notice.

Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams report from space

In a separate press conference streamed live from the ISS on Wednesday, Wilmore and Williams said they are “not complaining” about spending more time away from Earth.

“We’re having a great time here on the ISS,” said Williams. “Butch and I have been up here before and it feels like coming home. It feels good to be floating around, it feels good to be in space and working up here with the International Space Station team. It’s great to be up here, so I’m not complaining, Butch isn’t complaining that we’re here a few more weeks.”

And while the idea of ​​staying in space longer than originally planned may sound scary to some, Wilmore and Williams have more than enough confidence in the Starliner, its team and their ability to return home safely.

“We are absolutely confident that it will bring us back safely,” Wilmore said.

“Let’s add some fire to this rocket”: Manned Boeing Starliner finally takes off from Florida

When is Starliner coming back?

The Starliner’s return to Earth has been repeatedly postponed since its originally planned re-entry no later than one week after launch. It was then pushed back to June 18 at the earliest, then to June 22, and finally to June 25.

Now Starliner and its crew are not expected back until the end of July at the earliest.

The changes were due in part to the crew staying longer to better prepare the Starliner for the “long-term goal of a six-month docked mission to the space station,” Stich said in an earlier announcement in June. NASA later also cited spacewalks, data collection and the completion of additional tests as reasons for the delay.

“We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process,” Stich said in a June 21 update. “We are letting the data guide our decisions regarding how to handle the small leaks in the helium system and the engine performance we observed during rendezvous and docking.”

When Starliner returns, it will land in New Mexico. Starliner will “descend into the White Sands desert by parachute,” Boeing said. After slowing to about 4 mph, airbags attached to the underside of the spacecraft will deploy to soften the landing.

“The landing will be the first time that an American capsule with astronauts on board has touched down on the ground,” the company said in a press release.

“I’m confident that if there was a problem with the ISS, we could get on our spacecraft and undock, talk to our team and figure out the best way to get home,” Williams said at the virtual conference on Wednesday. “We’ve practiced a lot, so I feel like I have a really good feeling in my heart that this spacecraft will get us home without a problem.”

What does the Starliner crew do in space?

What did the astronauts do during the extra time in space? Actually, quite a lot, starting right after launch.

“The launch was spectacular, I mean truly amazing,” Wilmore said, noting that the spacecraft performed “incredibly well” and with “amazing” precision.

On the second day after launch, Wilmore said, the failure of two RCS jets noticeably changed handling, but fortunately the pair had practiced and were certified to operate manually. They took over the ship manually for about an hour while teams on the ground fixed the faults and got the jets running again.

After landing on the ISS, the two integrated into the existing crew. They are fully certified for all aspects of life aboard the space station, Wilmore said, including spacewalking, operating technology and performing maintenance, of which they have done “quite a lot.”

“It’s part of life here, you have to keep the space station running,” Wilmore said.

According to Williams, the pair have also been able to take part in numerous scientific experiments. From gene sequencing to using a 3D-printed lunar microscope, they are busy as temporary members of the ISS crew. Further tests will be conducted on the Starliner’s functions and its optimization both before, during and after undocking.

Starliner launches after delays

Wilmore and Williams launched into space on June 5 after plans were delayed by several last-minute cancellations.

The maiden crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, designed to compete with spacecraft such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has been delayed by a series of technical issues. It began on May 6, the original launch date, when a problem with a valve in the rocket’s upper stage forced the mission to be aborted.

The team managed to replace the valve, but then engineers encountered another obstacle: a small helium leak in the Starliner’s service module. This problem caused further delays until the flight was finally able to go ahead.

Additional helium leaks in the Starliner’s propulsion system were discovered later after launch. During a media conference call in late June, Stich, head of NASA’s commercial crew program, said five leaks had been discovered since the Starliner docked with the ISS.

The valve, which was defective during launch, also failed to function again when the crew test-fired the spacecraft’s engines. The crew did not attempt to test the defective valve and they do not plan to use it on the return flight “out of an abundance of caution,” according to Stich.

Nevertheless, the spacecraft navigated safely to the International Space Station and docked autonomously with the forward-facing port of the ISS’s Harmony module the following afternoon.

Contributors: Eric Lagatta, Jonathan Limehouse and Natalie Neysa Alund, USA TODAY.