NASA astronauts trust that Boeing Starliner will take them home

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The first two astronauts to fly a Boeing Starliner capsule from the International Space Station said on Wednesday they were confident in the spacecraft’s ability to return them home once the company and NASA resolve thruster issues that have kept them in the space much longer than expected.

“I have a really good feeling in my heart that this spacecraft will take us home, no problem,” NASA astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams said during the test team’s first news conference since they went to the ISS more than a month ago.

Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, veteran NASA astronauts and former US Navy test pilots, were launched aboard Starliner from Florida on June 5 and arrived the next day at the ISS, where they were originally scheduled to spend eight days.

Several issues with Starliner’s propulsion system have extended its mission indefinitely. Five of Starliner’s 28 maneuvering thrusters failed during its trek to the station, a propellant valve did not close properly and five leaked helium, which is used to pressurize the thrusters.

“We are very confident,” Wilmore told reporters. “That mantra you’ve heard, failure is not an option.”

“And that’s why we’re waiting, because we’re going to test it. That’s what we do,” Wilmore said, acknowledging that the US space agency and Boeing have an ongoing investigation related to thruster tests on Earth. vital to bring them back.

The current test mission is Boeing’s final step before the spacecraft can achieve NASA certification for regular astronaut flights and become the second US orbital capsule alongside market leader SpaceX’s Crew Dragon nascent human space amid the Starliner development delay.


To understand why some trucks overheated and stopped working during Starliner’s flight to the ISS, NASA officials and Boeing engineers began testing identical trucks at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range to try replicate the disasters.

At the same time, an investigation at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama aims to determine why a type of seal in the Starliner propulsion system has allowed helium to leak out.

Wilmore and Williams’ return to Earth on Starliner depends on the results of thruster tests, according to NASA officials.

NASA commercial crew chief Steve Stich told reporters on Wednesday that “we are taking our time” with the test and that the results of the thruster tests in New Mexico are “not what we would have hoped for”.

Stich said he hopes to have the testing completed by this weekend. Stich previously said this test could last “a few weeks,” followed by a detailed NASA review of the data to inform the agency’s decision on whether to allow Starliner to fly the astronauts home.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule that transferred four astronauts to the ISS in March, and the Russian Soyuz capsule that delivered three more in September, are also bound for the space station. Stich acknowledged that at least one of those vehicles could have provided Wilmore and Williams with another ride home.

“We have a little more time to go through the details, and then decide if we need to do anything different” with the return plan, Stich said. “But the top choice today is to get Butch and Suni back on Starliner. Right now, we see no reason not to.”

Starliner is allowed to remain docked to the ISS for 45 days – July 21 – or up to 90 days using various backup systems and relying heavily on the health of its lithium ion batteries, which have caused concern in the past spent

Although NASA and Boeing have said Starliner is capable of returning astronauts to Earth in the event of an ISS emergency, the capsule is not approved to fly home under normal, non-emergency conditions until its thruster problems are resolved. or at least better. understand.

A Russian satellite last month broke into 180 pieces of debris near the space station’s orbit and forced astronauts into their various docking spacecraft, including Wilmore and Williams entering Starliner, to prepare for a possible escape . Boeing cited the event as an example of Starliner’s readiness to return home if absolutely necessary.

Mark Nappi, the chief executive of Boeing Starliner, told reporters that such an emergency return scenario would only involve releasing Starliner from the station and returning the crew safely to Earth, despite questions about the thrusters.

“I feel confident that if we had to, if there was a problem with the International Space Station, we can find our spacecraft, and we can unlock it, talk to our crew, and figure out the best way to get home,” Williams said.

(Reporting by Joey RouletteEditing with Will Dunham)

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