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NASA and Boeing provide Starliner update: astronaut return date unknown

NASA and Boeing provide Starliner update: astronaut return date unknown

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NASA says it is still investigating problems with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The spacecraft remains at the International Space Center, weeks after it was supposed to bring astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams back to Earth as part of Starliner’s first crewed mission.

Officials from NASA and Boeing, which built the Starliner, now say it could be late this month or early August before the pair make their return trip.

“You know, we’re taking the time on the ground to go through all the data that we have before we make a decision on the reentry option,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “We’re taking the time to build confidence in the spacecraft to understand the performance of the booster, those boosters that failed during docking and also to fully understand the helium margins before we undock. You know, what we’re doing is not unusual for a new spacecraft.”

Starliner is one of two capsules built by private companies for NASA to ferry astronauts to the ISS. The other is SpaceX Crew Dragon, which made its first crewed flight in 2020 and has completed 13 successful missions to the space station to date.

After years of setbacks, Boeing was finally able to launch the Starliner carrying Wilmore and Sunita Williams to the ISS last month for a week-long mission.

Before launch, a helium leak was found in the service module, the underside of the Starliner capsule that contains thrusters and is removed upon reentry. Boeing teams determined the helium leak was small and contained, and continued launch operations.

As the hours of docking with the ISS approached, additional helium leaks were detected in the service module. As the crew prepared to approach the ISS, multiple thrusters failed, forcing teams on the ground to perform what is called a “hot fire.” While the crew manually controlled Starliner, all but one of the thrusters fired, allowing the crew to dock safely with the ISS.

The thruster problem is being investigated at the White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Other work being done at the Johnson Space Center was postponed this week as Houston deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl.

“Today marks the first day that Johnson Space Center is fully open for business again,” Stich said.

Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Crew Program, added that Boeing’s facility in Houston was also affected. “Some people are actually impacted and can’t work as much as we would like. But we’re still making a lot of progress.”

Brooke Edwards is a space reporter for Florida Today. Contact her at [email protected] or at X: @brookeofstars.