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Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

NASA astronauts confident Boeing’s Starliner will take them home

By meerna Jul11,2024
NASA astronauts confident Boeing’s Starliner will take them home

Two NASA astronauts who flew aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station last month said Wednesday they have no concerns about the capsule’s ability to get them home safely, even though their return has been postponed indefinitely as NASA and Boeing try to determine what caused a series of engine failures and helium leaks.

During a brief press conference at the space station, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, a veteran of two previous spaceflights, said that “we are absolutely confident” about the return trip and that despite problems en route to the station, Starliner was “really impressive.”

Still, when he took manual control of the autonomous spacecraft as it approached the station on June 6, “he could tell the thrust had been degraded,” he said. “At the time, of course, we didn’t know why. The failures just happened. You could tell it had been degraded, but it was still impressive.”

Sunita Williams, who is also on her third spaceflight, said she “feels in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem at all.”

But when that will happen is still unclear. NASA and Boeing are still conducting ground tests to see if they can determine why the spacecraft’s five “reaction control engines,” which are used to position the vehicle, failed during its approach to the station. Four of the five engines eventually came back online and worked properly, allowing Starliner to successfully dock. NASA has said it will not attempt to use the fifth engine on the return trip. The spacecraft is equipped with a total of 28 such engines on the service module, which are used to provide power and much of the vehicle’s propulsion.

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In addition to those problems, Starliner had five helium leaks in its propulsion system. NASA said the leaks were minor and that the spacecraft had plenty of helium, which was used to pressurize the propulsion system, for the rest of the mission.

In a separate briefing Wednesday, Steve Stich, who oversees NASA’s commercial crew program, said that if all tests show no major engine issues, the crew could return as early as late July. “But we’ll just follow the data step by step and then at the appropriate time we’ll determine when the right opportunity is to disconnect,” he said.

The mission is the first flight of Starliner with humans aboard, a test to see how the vehicle performs before NASA allows a full group of four astronauts to fly to the space station for up to six months. SpaceX, the other company NASA relies on for crew transport, has been flying astronauts to the space station in its Dragon capsule since 2020.

Williams and Wilmore were originally scheduled to stay on the space station for only about 10 days, but NASA delayed their return three times and then pushed it back indefinitely while it tried to better understand the spacecraft’s problems.

Teams conducted tests at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, reproducing the flight profile to the space station and back to try to determine what caused the problems.

“What we really do is we just take the time to make sure we look under every rock and every stone,” Stich said. “Just to make sure there’s nothing else out there that might surprise us.”

In a briefing late last month, he said the crew members were not stranded in space and that there were no plans for a rescue operation. “I want to be clear, Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” he said. “Our plan is to continue their return aboard Starliner and send them home at the appropriate time.”

On Wednesday, he reiterated that “the top option today is to get Butch and Suni back on Starliner. Right now, we don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t happen.” Referring to SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, he added that “we have two vehicles, two different systems that we could use to get the crew back, so we have a little more time to look at the data and then make a decision about whether we need to do anything differently.”

He added that “there have been no discussions about sending another Dragon to rescue the Starliner crew.”

NASA has repeatedly said that Starliner has permission to fly astronauts home in the event of an accident. Late last month, Wilmore and Williams got a real test when they were forced to board Starliner after a satellite broke apart in orbit, potentially endangering the space station. The debris passed through without a hitch, and Starliner “performed exceptionally well and as expected in this event,” Ed Van Cise, NASA’s flight director, said in a statement.

While at the space station, Williams and Wilmore continued testing the spacecraft, including loading the entire crew of four astronauts onto it to test its life-support systems.

Williams said being on the orbiting lab “is like coming home. It’s good to be up in the air. It’s good to be in space and working here with the International Space Station team. So, yeah, it’s great to be here. I’m not complaining that we’re here for a few extra weeks.”

By meerna

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