Boeing Starliner astronaut says spacecraft is ‘absolutely amazing’ despite malfunctions and delays

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The Boeing Starliner spacecraft and its crew have been in space for over a month – far longer than the week-long stay that was originally expected.

The vehicle experienced technical problems which delayed the return of the vehicle indefinitely, and no return date has yet been forthcoming.

But the two astronauts on this historic test mission spoke mostly favorably of the vehicle that carried them to the International Space Station, marking the inaugural crewed flight of the Boeing spacecraft.

“The launch was great. I mean, really amazing,” said Butch Wilmore, one of the two NASA astronauts in charge of this mission, in a briefing on Wednesday. “And then we checked our operational capabilities, and the spacecraft performed very well.”

Wilmore suggested the vehicle’s precision control. But he added that when several thrusters unexpectedly failed as the Starliner approached its docking port at the International Space Station, he felt the intelligence had “degraded”.

“But thank God, we had practiced and got certified for manual control, so we took manual control for over an hour,” Wilmore added. Ultimately, all but one thrusters were recovered before the crash, according to NASA.

In addition to those thruster issues, Starliner suffered a helium leak on the first part of the journey.

To learn more about the propulsion problems, the Starliner team is conducting ground tests in New Mexico. That test should be wrapped up by this weekend, officials said during a briefing Wednesday afternoon. They also said that test plans encountered a “hiccup” in the form of Hurricane Beryl, which made landfall in the US on July 8.

While NASA has not yet shared a projected return date for Williams and Wilmore, Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Wednesday that the “big driver” for time is getting the astronauts home before the SpaceX Crew-9 mission arrives. with him. more astronauts in August.

“That’s kind of backwards. I think we’re really working to try to follow the data and see when the earliest we can focus on docking and landing,” said Stich.

“I think some of the data suggests, hopefully, it might be by the end of July,” Stich added.

An exciting journey

Starliner’s inaugural crewed mission took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 5, ending years of delays surrounding the vehicle due to development difficulties, cost overruns and even an uncrewed test mission that suffered a mission termination error and that had to be done. fly again.

NASA and Boeing have said that the new wave of issues related to this flight should not prevent the spacecraft from bringing its crew – astronauts Sunita Williams and Wilmore — safely home from space. However they did not name an expected time frame for the return of Williams and Wilmore insisting that the crew is not “stuck”.

“I feel confident that if we had to, if there was a problem with the International Space Station, we would go inside (the Starliner spacecraft) and we could disembark, talk to our crew, and figure out the best way to get home. ,” Williams said.

“We’re very confident,” Wilmore said of Starliner’s ability to bring them home.

The reason crews on the ground say they want to keep the Starliner safely attached to the International Space Station for now is so they can continue working to figure out what caused the thruster issues and helium leaks. Both problems are part of the Starliner that is not designed to survive re-entry back to Earth, leaving ground crews with few options to continue collecting data from the component after Williams and Wilmore return home.

“This is a test flight — we were hoping to find some things,” Williams said, echoing comments she made before the liftoff. “We’re finding things, and we’re correcting and making changes, making updates with our control team.”

Boeing’s Mark Nappi, the company’s vice president and manager of the Starliner program, said Wednesday that the goal of the additional thruster testing is to understand whether the thrusters will perform as expected on the way home.

“If the thrusters were somehow damaged, what would we do differently?” Nappi said. “We don’t believe we’ve damaged any trucks, but again, we want to fill in the blanks and run this test to make sure.”

Remove cases

Just before liftoff in June, NASA rearranged the cargo aboard Starliner, removing two suitcases for Williams and Wilmore and replacing them with a 150-pound (68-kilogram) pump needed to pump the space station’s bathroom. work as intended.

In space, every bit of liquid matters, and astronauts have long used a water processing system to convert urine into drinking water. But in May, a piece of that conversion system broke.

The failure of the pump “put us in a position where we would have to store a lot of urine,” Dana Weigel, manager for NASA’s International Space Station Program, said before the flight. She added that the urine was being stored in containers on board the station.

That’s why NASA had to scramble to get a replacement part on the next flight to the space station, choosing to send it with Williams and Wilmore at the expense of some of their more personal comforts.

The two suitcases that were removed contained clothes and toiletries – including shampoo and soap – which Wilmore and Williams chose.

Weigel also said the station already had extra clothes and toiletries for Williams and Wilmore to use.

“I’m not aware of any issues with clothing availability, or food availability — we really don’t have any,” Stich noted Wednesday, adding that a replacement mission flown by Northrop Grumman is scheduled to be at the station around August.

Test flights: SpaceX’s vs. Boeing’s

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is designed to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which had its first crewed test mission, called Demo-2, in 2020 that appeared to go off without a hitch.

Both Starliner and Crew Dragon are part of the same NASA program, called Commercial Crew.

However, comparing the two vehicles is not always straightforward. SpaceX designed its Dragon cargo spacecraft years before its Crew Dragon capsule, while Boeing started somewhat from scratch with Starliner.

But SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission looked much different than Starliner’s first crewed flight.

During SpaceX’s Demo-2, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley gave at least two public tours of their spacecraft en route to the space station, and held a news conference from the space station on June 1, 2020 – the day after he embarked. .

Hurley and Behnken already knew their mission was likely to succeed last month. NASA said before liftoff that the agency wanted to keep a full crew in the space station, waiting to bring Behnken and Hurley home until the crew’s next mission was ready to fly. In the end, SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission lasted 64 days—far less than the advertised maximum duration for the trip, 110 days.

Williams and Wilmore, on the other hand, are approaching their 36th day in space for a mission that officials initially billed as a roughly weeklong trip.

In addition, the astronauts are about 10 days short of the maximum period of 45 days originally set by NASA, but officials are now considering extending that maximum period to at least 90 days.

Williams said Wednesday that she and Wilmore have already joined the astronauts aboard the station to help with routine tasks.

“We’re doing science for them, maintenance, major maintenance that’s been waiting for a little while, like things that have been on the books for a little bit,” Williams said.

Stich also said Wednesday that “the beautiful thing about the Commercial Crew Program is that we have two vehicles” — referring to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which will fly new crew members to the space station in August.

“We have a little more time to look at the data and then decide if we need to do anything different,” Stich said, referring to the flexibility Crew Dragon gives to the International Space Station schedule and this test flight. . “But the top choice today is getting Butch and Suni back on Starliner.”

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