Science

Boeing Starliner return date delayed again as NASA races to fix thrusters and plug leaks amid fears its astronauts will be 'stranded in space'


Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will be stuck at the International Space Station with two astronauts onboard for even longer than expected, as the company and NASA scrambles to fix issues with its thrusters and plug helium leaks.

Officials from the aerospace company and NASA announced on Tuesday that the spacecraft is now not expected to return until at least June 26. It had originally been scheduled to return on June 14, and was last week delayed through June 22.

The officials say they are spending the extra time to investigate five helium leaks in the propeller system as well as issues with several thrusters that are used to maneuver the spaceship.

‘We’re taking a little bit of extra time to work through what we’ve seen and make sure we have all the plans in place to bring the crew home,’ Steve Stich, a NASA program manager, said at a news conference on Tuesday, according to the Wall Street Journal.

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will be stuck on the International Space Station for even longer, as Boeing and NASA tries to fix issues with their spacecraft

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will be stuck on the International Space Station for even longer, as Boeing and NASA tries to fix issues with their spacecraft

But by June 26, astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams would have spent about 20 days in space – more than double the roughly eight days they had originally planned for.

The crew has at least four months of reserves for food and other consumable items, NASA officials have said.

Starliner can also ferry the crew members back to Earth in the case of an emergency, according to Stich.

But the ship can only stay docked on the ISS for a total of 45 days due to limited fuel on the orbit laboratory, and Mike Leinbach, the former launch director for the space shuttle at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, says the mission managers won’t let the spacecraft return to Earth with astronauts onboard if it could pose any risk to them.

‘This one has a few more issues that I would have expected,’ he said, according to the Journal.

‘We hoped for a clean flight, but we didn’t get one and we’re dealing with it,’ he said, reassuring reporters: ‘They’ll figure this out.’ 

The crew has enough food rations for at  least four months on the International Space Station

The crew has enough food rations for at  least four months on the International Space Station

But it remains unclear what NASA has planned if the 45 days passes without the issues being resolved, but some experts have suggested that it may have to lean into Boeing’s rival – Elon Musk’s SpaceX – to rescue the astronauts and bring them back home.

‘Good news is that they are on the ISS and not like the Apollo 13 trying to get home from the moon,’ Rudy Ridolfi, Former Space System Commander and Space Technology Acquisition Manager, told DailyMail.com.

‘But I wouldn’t be surprised if someone at NASA is getting a SpaceX Dragon capsule ready for a rescue mission.’

Mike Gruntman, professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California, also said that ‘it is more likely that SpaceX would be able to provide an additional launch in the foreseeable future to bring the astronauts back.’

‘It is highly unfortunate that Boeing’s Starliner, after so much delay with its flight, continues to face problems,’ Gruntman continued.

‘For decades, Boeing was one of the most admired aerospace and defense companies. It is a true national tragedy.’

He went on to suggest that the problems Starliner is facing may have stemmed from manufacturing issues at the scandal-plagued aerospace company.

‘Multiple similar issues – helium leaks – with seemingly similar components, as reported in the press, point to a systemic problem with design or workmanship or testing or system engineering or a combination thereof,’ Gruntman explained.

Issues with the Starliner arose even before it took off with the astronauts earlier this month

Issues with the Starliner arose even before it took off with the astronauts earlier this month

Teams detected a valve leaking helium back in May, and four more just hours after it took off

Teams detected a valve leaking helium back in May, and four more just hours after it took off 

Boeing and NASA officials first noticed issues with the Starliner even before it took off with the astronauts earlier this month. 

It has faced years of delays, setbacks and added expenses that have cost Boeing more than $1billion, CNN reports. 

Starliner was then set to launch on May 6, but teams detected a valve leaking helium and scrubbed the mission.

Engineers suspected that the issue came from a defective rubber seal the size of a shirt button, and said that even if the leak worsens, it could be managed in flight – and set the next launch for June 1.

However, Starliner was again plagued with misfortunate when the capsule was automatically halted with minutes to go before liftoff by a computer-abort system. 

The postponement was triggered by computers on the Atlas V rocket’s launchpad that coordinate the final moments before liftoff, but the Starliner capsule appeared healthy, officials said. 

The Starliner blasted off from Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Altas V rocket on June 5

The Starliner blasted off from Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Altas V rocket on June 5

It finally blasted off from Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Altas V rocket on June 5.

But just a few hours after separating from the Atlas rocket, NASA revealed the capsule had sprung two more leaks.

A fourth leak was found after docking on June 6 and the most recent hit on June 10.

In addition to the helium leaks, five thrusters temporarily malfunctioned during the flight – but four came back online. The fifth was shut off for the remainder of the mission, the Journal reports.

Wilmore and Williams are now conducting several tests on the ship, which says have gone well and are giving the team confidence that the spacecraft is recovering.

He and other officials say there is no reason to believe the Starliner won’t be able to bring the astronauts back home, as the helium leaks and thruster issues occurred on a part of the craft that is not intended to survive the trip home from space.

Mark Nappi, program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, also claims there is ‘good thruster performance now,’ as the company tries to paint the issues with the Starliner as a learning experience.

It is under contract with NASA to conduct six more crewed flights to the space station. 

‘It’s more nominal and the (helium) leaks show that they’re stable and less than they’ve been previously,’ Nappi said. ‘That leads us to believe that we have a good safe spacecraft.’

Boeing is under contract with NASA to conduct six more crewed flights to the ISS

Boeing is under contract with NASA to conduct six more crewed flights to the ISS

Boeing executives are now hopeful that a successful return on June 26 could prove its worth to the space agency, after a series of issues with its separate commercial airplane division. 

A Boeing plane experienced a rare Dutch roll at 32,000 feet mid-flight last month, which resulted in the aircraft being taken out of service.

In the same month, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321 experienced fatal ‘turbulence’ that involved proximity to tropical thunderstorms.

And just last week, an Air Canada Boeing plane bursts into flames seconds after take-off.

If everything goes well on this latest test for the aerospace company, Starliner’s capsule, Calypso, would undock from the ISS at 10.10pm Eastern Time on June 25.

After undocking, Starliner will reenter the atmosphere, with the crew experiencing 3.5G as they slow down from 17,500 miles per hour to a gentle parachute- and airbag-assisted touchdown. 

They would then land at White Sands Space Harbor in the southwestern United States on June 26 at around 4.51am Eastern Time



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