Thruster glitches and helium leaks can’t stop Boeing’s Starliner astronaut test flight – but why are they happening?

When NASA astronauts tried to dock Boeing’s first crewed Starliner spacecraft at the International Space Station on Thursday (June 6), they had to wait.

The Starliner service module had five thrusters out. And that was after flight controllers found workarounds for two new helium leaks on the spacecraft on top of one it already had. Also, its cooling system was using more water than expected, and another helium leak would later be noticed after Starliner collided with the space station.

So what gives? Why all the glitches?

NASA and Boeing, for their part, are not worried. After all, the Starliner mission to the ISS is a test flight, Boeing’s Crew Flight Test – both in name and nature. This mission is only the sixth time in history that NASA astronauts have flown a brand new spacecraft for the first time. For Boeing, when it finally reached the ISS with astronauts after its first uncrewed test flight failed to do so in 2019 but the delay of this crewed flight was more problematic and a giant leap forward.

And those glitches? So far, they have been surpassed by NASA and Boeing.

Starliner stopped at the ISS a little more than an hour later than planned after a manual flight by NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (mission leader) and Sunita Williams (its pilot) Boeing engineers helped four of the five thrusters down to recover. The fifth part will remain deactivated for the rest of the mission, but the glitch – which may actually be in the Starliner software and not the thrusters themselves – will not be a risk for the return to Earth.

Related: 1st Boeing Starliner astronaut flight: Live updates

The Boeing Starliner capsule will approach the International Space Station for docking on June 6, 2024.

The Boeing Starliner capsule will approach the International Space Station for docking on June 6, 2024.

The astronauts also refilled the water tank in their cooling system from an onboard supply and future vehicles will carry a larger tank from the start, Boeing said. As for those helium leaks, Starliner has enough gas supply for the rest of the mission, but Boeing engineers are still trying to understand why they keep up.

“We have two problems on this vehicle right now, the helium leak and figuring out how to fine-tune these thrusters so they don’t pick up,” Boeing Starliner program manager Mark Nappi told reporters at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “Those are actually pretty minor issues to deal with and we’ll figure them out before the next mission.”

NASA’s Steve Stich, who oversees the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, compared the Boeing Starliner flight to the agency’s own first space shuttle mission, STS-1, which launched astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen into orbit in 1981.

“I would say some of the challenges we face are very similar to the space shuttle,” Stich said. The water cooling system glitch, for one, is very similar to the one NASA had on shuttle flights during that 30-year program, he said.

Meanwhile, Wilmore and Williams have a packed week or so at the space station, where they will test everything from how comfortable Starliner is to sleep to how well it can accommodate crews. four astronauts (its nominal complement) to how the capsule acts as a safe haven in the event of a station emergency.

“Because they’re only scheduled to be there for a relatively short time, we work them much harder than we work our ISS crews,” NASA’s Emily Nelson, lead flight director for the Starliner Crew Flight Test, told reporters . “There are many checks.”

Many of those tests are aimed at preparing the station and the Starliner program for Starliner 1, the first of at least six astronaut taxi flights for NASA by Boeing under its $4.2 billion Commercial Crew Program contract. That mission is expected to launch in early 2025. Boeing is one of two companies with multi-billion dollar contracts to fly NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. The other, SpaceX, has already flown eight missions for NASA on its Crew Dragon spacecraft.

nine astronauts float in a mostly white module of a space station, all smiling for a photo.nine astronauts float in a mostly white module of a space station, all smiling for a photo.

nine astronauts float in a mostly white module of a space station, all smiling for a photo.


— Meet the crew on the first Boeing Starliner astronaut flight

– 2 astronaut taxis: Why NASA wants both Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon

— SpaceX congratulates Boeing, ULA on first crewed Starliner launch

Nelson said ISS flight controllers can use the station’s robotic handheld cameras to inspect Starliner’s affected thrusters in case any problems are discovered that way. Since the thrusters are on the Starliner service module, which is placed ahead of re-entry, Boeing will not get it back to study on Earth.

However, NASA and Boeing are confident that the thruster glitch seen during the port will not be a major threat. During Boeing’s second unmanned flight test, which will arrive at the space station in 2022, several thrusters also went offline in the same way, Stich said.

“I think we don’t need to worry about all the thrusters,” Stich said, adding that the affected ones in flight 2022 did fine after being recovered. “Those thrusters did well after we brought them back.”

For their part, Wilmore and Williams are eager to get to work promoting Starliner.

The astronauts were given a warm welcome as they floated into the ISS from the Starliner, ringing the ship’s bell, weightless dancing and hugs from the station’s seven-member Expedition 71 crew representing the United States and Russia. They have until June 14 at least, if not a little longer, to complete their work, with only one day off during that time, NASA said.

“We are ready to go to work for the international partners here,” said Wilmore. “Whatever you got us to do. We’re ready.”

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