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Friday, July 19, 2024

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

The two NASA astronauts who flew in Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station last month said Wednesday that they have no concerns the capsule will be able to fly them home safely, even as their return has been postponed indefinitely while NASA and Boeing struggle to determine what caused a series of thruster failures and helium leaks.

In a short press briefing from the space station, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, a veteran of two previous spaceflights said that “we’re absolutely confident” in the return trip and that despite the issues on the way to the station, Starliner was “truly impressive.”

Still, as he took over manual control of the autonomous spacecraft as it approached the station June 6, he “could tell that the thrust was degraded,” he said. “At the time, we didn’t know why, obviously. The failures had just happened. You could tell it was degraded, but it was still impressive.”

Sunita Williams, who is also on her third spaceflight, said she has “a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem.”

But when that will happen is still unclear. NASA and Boeing are continuing to conduct ground tests to see if they can figure out why five of the spacecraft’s “reaction control thrusters,” which are used to position the vehicle, stopped working during the approach to the station. Four of the five thrusters ultimately came back online and worked properly, allowing Starliner to successfully dock. NASA has said it won’t attempt to use the fifth thruster on the return trip. The spacecraft is outfitted with a total of 28 such thrusters on the service module, which is used to provide power and much of the vehicle’s propulsion.

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In addition to those problems, Starliner has sprung five helium leaks in the propulsion system. NASA has said the leaks are small and that the spacecraft has plenty of helium, which is used to pressurize the propulsion system, for the rest of the mission.

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

The mission is Starliner’s first flight with humans on board, a test designed to see how the vehicle performs before NASA allows a full contingent of four astronauts to fly to the space station for stays as long as six months. SpaceX, the other company NASA relies on for crew transportation, has been flying astronauts to the space station since 2020 in its Dragon capsule.

Williams and Wilmore were initially supposed to stay on the space station for only about 10 days, but then NASA delayed the return three times before pushing it back indefinitely while it seeks to better understand the spacecraft’s problems.

The teams have been running tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, mimicking the flight profile to and from the space station to try to see if they can determine what caused the problems.

“Really what we’re doing is just taking the time to make sure that we have looked under every rock and every stone,” Stich said. “Just to make sure that there’s nothing else that would surprise us.”

In a briefing late last month, he said that the crew members were not stuck in space and that there were no plans for any kind of rescue operation. “I want to make it clear that Butch and Suni aren’t stranded in space,” he said. “Our plan is to continue to return them on Starliner and return them home at the right time.”

On Wednesday, he reiterated that the “prime option today is to return Butch and Suni on Starliner. Right now, we don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t be the case.” Referring to SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, he added that “we have two vehicles, two different systems that we could use to return crew, and so we have a little bit more time to go through the data and then make a decision as to whether we need to do anything different.”

He added that there’s “been no discussion of sending another Dragon to rescue to the Starliner crew.”

NASA has repeatedly said that Starliner is cleared to fly the astronauts home in the event of an emergency. Late last month, Wilmore and Williams got a real-life test when they were forced to board Starliner after a satellite came apart in orbit, potentially threatening the space station. The debris passed without a problem, and Starliner “worked exceptionally well and as envisioned for this case,” Ed Van Cise, a NASA flight director, said in a statement.

While they have been on the station, Williams and Wilmore have continued to test the spacecraft, including loading it up with a full contingent of four astronauts to test its life-support systems.

Williams said being on the orbiting laboratory “feels like coming back home. It feels good to float around. It feels good to be in space and work 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 for a couple extra weeks.”

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