Starliner Astronauts Still Don’t Know When They’ll Be Able to Return to Earth | Science

NASA and Boeing have detailed the status of the tests, which are still ongoing without major developments to decide when the first manned spacecraft Starliner will begin its descent to Earth. In any case, those responsible for this space program emphasized this Wednesday at a press conference that the return will not happen before the end of July. Therefore, although the mission was supposed to last only eight days, due to a series of errors and a leak in the propulsion system, the ship will be delayed for about two months at the International Space Station (ISS), where it arrived. June 6 with two astronauts on board, Captain Butch Wilmore and Pilot Suni Williams.

The US space agency, together with the aircraft company that manufactures and operates the spacecraft, have decided to continue to spend more time analyzing both the data collected in recent weeks and the tests conducted on the ground, at the White Sands Test Facility (New York, Mexico, USA), the same one where the capsule Calypso Starliner will land on its return. “We want to continue testing until we’re confident we fully understand what happened to the propellant. This is not unusual for space missions,” said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s commercial crew program.

During this and other recent appearances, Steve Stich repeatedly insisted that there would be no safety issues on the return flight. In fact, if there were an emergency on the ISS, Wilmore and Williams would have the right to board the Starliner and return at any time. Stich noted that “the ISS schedule is relatively clear until mid-August,” and that since the station has plenty of food and supplies, the two astronauts are in no rush to return to Earth.

At a press conference also held Wednesday from the space station, both astronauts confirmed that they are “very confident that everything is in place to return home safely,” and highlighted all the precision maneuvers that went well during their flight to the station. Wilmore assured that they are “prepared, with the data that we know right now,” and Williams noted that his team on the ground base is “working hard to make sure that return happens soon.”

They also clarified that the main engines, which are designed to give the ship a boost to descend to Earth, are not among those that have registered failures and leaks. In any case, Suni Williams reminded that when the Starliner spacecraft undocks from the ISS to begin its return, checks will be carried out again before moving on, since the goal is to understand as best as possible why these failures occurred.

Integrated into the life of the ISS

Confronted with concerns about her state of mind in the midst of a mission with so many delays, the astronaut said, “We’re having a great time on the ISS. Butch and I have been here before, and it’s like coming home to us. It’s fun to float around the station and work with the rest of the crew. We’re not complaining about staying a few more weeks,” the astronaut continued. Captain Butch Wilmore and pilot Suni Williams have settled into the daily life and work of Expedition 71 on the International Space Station, where they’ve been for 34 days. The original plan was for them to stay on board for just a week. But since both had experience on the ISS (Williams became its commander for Expedition 33), they had no problem adapting and collaborating with the other seven crew members on exploration and maintenance tasks. In addition, the station continues its core work, which consists of analyzing the data required for the Boeing Starliner spacecraft to receive certification for a long-term stay on the ISS.

This space license is necessary for the Starliner ships to fulfill the mission for which they were created: to offer NASA a regular transportation line into space, both to the current ISS and to future stations in low Earth orbit. In this way, Boeing intends to compete with SpaceX and its Crew Dragon ship. However, Elon Musk’s space company has a number of advantages in this competition, as its ship is fully reusable – with each Starliner flight discarding the Atlas V rocket and service module, and only the capsule being reused – and in addition, Crew. Dragon has already been flying regularly to the space station since it received permission in 2020 following the success of its first crewed flight.

Starliner is currently licensed to dock with the ISS for only 45 days. That limit is 10 days away, and it will likely be exceeded given current projections for re-entry no earlier than late July. However, NASA officials overseeing the commercial flight program stressed that this time limit is due to the life of the batteries, which were recharged on the station and are in perfect condition. According to Steve Stich, “Based on Starliner’s continued performance during the docking, we are working with the station to extend the certification of several components beyond the 45-day mission duration.”

A chain of delays and failures

On June 28, in their last update before this Wednesday, NASA and Boeing announced that they would conduct simulations at the base using engines prepared for future missions, as well as continue to analyze data from the spacecraft, which remains docked on the ISS.

The intensive testing is aimed at uncovering the still-unknown causes of multiple engine failures and leaks of helium — the gas used to pressurize the spacecraft’s service module — that were detected during the spacecraft’s approach to the ISS. That delayed the connection between the two spacecraft for several hours. And with Starliner already docked at the International Space Station, the two new helium leaks have revived concerns about the error rate.

After postponing the return date twice (the landing was originally scheduled for June 14), NASA announced a week later that it was postponing the return indefinitely until it had enough data on the problems found in the Boeing spacecraft. The only way to inspect the failed engines and boxes was while the spacecraft remained docked to the ISS, since the service module is disposable. This part of the spacecraft, designed for propulsion and power generation, separates from the capsule and disintegrates upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The delay in returning Starliner’s first crewed flight to Earth wasn’t the only unexpected event in this mission or in Boeing’s space program. Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams finally lifted off on June 5, on their third launch attempt, after two cancellations and several delays that ultimately delayed the mission by a month. And in 2019, on its first uncrewed test flight, the capsule Calypso It had already had problems: it failed to dock with the ISS and was forced to return to Earth early. That forced a new test flight with another Starliner capsule in 2022, and between that second mission and this one, new problems continued to pile up for another few years of delays. The original plan was for Starliner to deliver its first crew members to the ISS in 2018.

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