Stuck In Space: What’s Happening with Boeing’s Starliner & Two Astronauts Aboard?

5th Jul 2024
Stuck In Space: What’s Happening with Boeing’s Starliner & Two Astronauts Aboard?

A month ago, on the 5th of June, astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to test-drive Starliner – Boeing’s newest spaceship – a critical step in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It was supposed to be a brief mission with a straightforward plan:

  • Launch and ascend to orbit
  • Dock with the International Space Station (ISS)
  • Perform system checks and evaluations
  • Undock and return to Earth

Initially scheduled to last approximately one week, a series of unexpected problems has led to an indefinite delay in their return to Earth. Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, during a news conference on the 28th of June stated that the space agency is considering extending the maximum length of Starliner’s mission from 45 days to 90 days. But still, there is no return date on the horizon.

Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president for its Commercial Crew Program, assured reporters: “We’re not stuck on ISS. The crew is not in any danger, and there’s no increased risk when we decide to bring Suni and Butch back to Earth.” Is it really the case? Let’s see what’s going on with Boeing’s Starliner.

What’s the Problem?

Boeing’s Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket. Credits: John Raoux/AP

The Starliner spacecraft encountered several issues during its journey to the ISS:

  1. Thruster malfunctions: As the spacecraft approached the space station, 5 out of 28 Reaction Control System thrusters unexpectedly shut down. While four of these thrusters were later brought back online, the cause of the malfunction remains under investigation.
  2. Helium leaks: Multiple helium leaks were detected in the spacecraft’s propulsion system. These leaks are believed to be caused by faulty rubber seals.

What’s the Solution?

To address these issues, NASA conducts extensive testing at its White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. Engineers are simulating launch, docking, and landing burns on a test thruster to replicate the problems and ensure the astronauts’ safe return. This testing process could take several weeks. At a recent briefing, Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, explained that the timeline for these tests and subsequent data analysis is the primary factor in determining a landing date.

He stated that if the New Mexico tests provide comprehensive answers, they could proceed with undocking and returning home. However, if the tests only yield partial insights, they might conduct additional “hot fire” tests on the orbiting Starliner to gather more conclusive data.

A Rocky Road to Launch: Pre-Flight Troubles

The Starliner program has faced numerous setbacks since its inception:

  • In 2019, the first uncrewed test flight failed to reach its intended orbit due to an incorrectly set onboard clock.
  • A second uncrewed test in 2022 experienced thruster failures but managed to dock with the ISS using backup thrusters.
  • Issues with the parachute system and potential fire risks from wiring tape delayed the crewed launch planned for last year.

What’s Happening Now?

Credit: BoeingSpace account on X (former Twitter)

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams enter their fourth week aboard the International Space Station (ISS). On 2nd July, the astronauts conducted crucial system checks inside Starliner, working closely with Boeing flight controllers and engineers. These checks included repressurising propellant manifolds and updating mission data loads for the spacecraft’s computer systems.

Amidst these technical operations and challenges, the crew faced an unexpected challenge when a decommissioned Russian satellite disintegrated, scattering debris through space. As a precautionary measure, Wilmore and Williams took refuge inside the Starliner, prepared to detach from the ISS if necessary. After about an hour of high alert, the debris was deemed non-threatening, and the astronauts safely returned to the ISS.

Celebrating America’s Independence Day, two US astronauts shared the picture of Starliner, donning an American flag in its window.

Leave a Reply Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Related Articles

Explore Orbital Today