Technical problems for Starliner, astronauts stuck in space

Starliner will remain docked to the International Space Station (ISS) at least until July 2ndapproximately one week beyond the previously established target date of June 26th. This additional time will allow Boeing and NASA to more carefully evaluate several problems that have arisen with the vehicle.

We are taking our time and following the mission management team’s standard process,” he has declared Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, in an update. “We are letting data guide our decision-making around managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking,” he added.

The Starliner mission

Starliner’s current mission, known as Crew Flight Test (CFT), brought NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the ISS. CFT launched on June 5 and arrived at the orbiting station the next day. However, as Stich pointed out, the arrival did not go entirely smoothly. During the approach to the ISS, Starliner encountered problems with five of its 28 Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters. Four of them were subsequently reactivated.

Additionally, CFT team members noted 5 small helium leaks in Starliner’s propulsion system. One was detected before launch but was not considered a serious problem, the other 4 emerged after the capsule detached from its rocket, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V.

Repeated postponements

Starliner was initially scheduled to spend about a week on the ISS for this test mission. On June 9, however, NASA and Boeing announced that the departure had been postponed to no earlier than June 18, to allow for a NASA spacewalk scheduled for June 13 and to allow more time for Starliner checks.

Then, on Tuesday 18 June, the scheduled departure date was moved again to June 26th. The rationale was similar: the extra time would allow for a more detailed assessment of helium leaks and RCS thruster problems. Plus, there was still one spacewalk to accommodate: The excursion scheduled for June 13 was moved to June 24, after one of the astronauts designated for the walk felt discomfort in his suit.

NASA plans to conduct another spacewalk on July 2 and hopes that activity will be completed before Starliner’s reentry, agency officials said in the latest update.

Repeated CFT extensions are no cause for alarm, Stich said, noting that NASA still has faith in Starliner. “Starliner is performing well in orbit while docked at the Space Station,” Stich said. “We are strategically using the extra time to clear the path for some critical station tasks while completing operations for Butch and Suni’s return to Starliner and gaining valuable information on system upgrades we want to implement for post-certification missions“.

The certification means Starliner is authorized to fly 6-month crewed missions to the ISS for NASA. SpaceX already conducts these flights with its Crew Dragon capsule: Elon Musk’s company is currently in the middle of its 8th crewed mission.

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