Boeing, NASA Consider Extending Astronauts’ Starliner Mission to Three Months

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More than three weeks into a mission that was originally scheduled to last just a few days, the two astronauts piloting the first crewed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft still don’t know when they’ll be home.

Officials have repeatedly said that the Starliner, which experienced problems with helium leaks and booster failure en route to the International Space Station in early June, will be safe to bring home astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore.

Still, Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, said Friday that the space agency is considering extending the maximum length of Starliner’s mission from 45 days to 90 days. And there is no set return date in sight.

Part of that desired extension is being driven by ground tests that Boeing and NASA plan to conduct in New Mexico to better understand why some of the Starliner’s thrusters unexpectedly failed during the first leg of the journey. (Four of the Starliner’s five failed thrusters have since been repaired, but none are expected to last the rest of the mission.)

“We’re just looking at the timeline to get (the New Mexico test) done and then review the data,” Stich said during a Friday briefing. “And that’s really the long pole, I would say, that determines a landing date.”

“We are in no hurry to come home,” he added.

Stich and Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of the Commercial Crew Program for Boeing, also said Friday that engineers are still unsure what caused the Starliner’s problems.

According to Nappi, one of the goals of conducting the ground tests while the spacecraft is still in space is to determine possible reasons why the thrusters failed.

“So if (the New Mexico test) comes back and gives us all the answers, then we can just undock and go home,” Nappi said. “If it comes back and says, ‘Here’s 80 percent of the answer. And if you just do another docked hot fire (Starliner test in orbit), then you can get 100 percent of the answers’ — we want (Starliner) there so we can get that information.”

Meanwhile, Williams and Wilmore have been integrated with the rest of the crew currently aboard the International Space Station and are performing routine tasks.

A start of a historic flight

The problems for the Boeing Starliner started with its June 5 launch on an Atlas V rocket.

The mission team discovered a helium leak before launch, but did not consider it threatening enough to abandon the takeoff.

When asked about that decision on Friday, Nappi said he had “no regrets about the decision to launch and participate in the test flight.”

He added that NASA and Boeing have always emphasized that this mission was a test flight, with the goal of collecting data to improve Starliner performance for future missions.

Setbacks in a job

As the spacecraft headed toward the International Space Station, more helium leaks were discovered, along with thruster problems. The problems occurred in the Starliner’s service module, a cylindrical attachment to the bottom of the spacecraft that provides much of the vehicle’s thrust during flight.

By design, the service module will not survive the trip back to Earth. It will be jettisoned and destroyed when the Starliner spacecraft reenters the atmosphere. That is why the Boeing and NASA teams subsequently chose to leave the Starliner spacecraft safely docked with the space station while they worked to learn as much as possible about these issues.

It is not yet clear whether NASA will extend the maximum mission duration to 90 days. Stich said officials will need to determine the Starliner’s battery life for that purpose, although he noted that the batteries are charged on the space station and should perform the same after 90 days as they did during the first 45 days.

Delays, cost overruns and unmet deadlines are common features of the aerospace industry. But Boeing has faced challenges that stand out, especially when the Starliner program is compared directly to its competitor: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

That spacecraft, which falls under the same NASA Commercial Crew Program for transporting astronauts, completed its first test flight in 2020 and has been flying routine missions since then.

SpaceX had the advantage of having designed the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the back of its Cargo Dragon vehicle, which was used for years to deliver supplies to the International Space Station before its successor departed.

Boeing, on the other hand, designed the Starliner from scratch.

However, overcoming the perception that Boeing has underperformed in this program has been a challenge for the aerospace giant that was already suffering major reputational damage in its aviation division.

“We have had a very good test flight so far, and it is being viewed quite negatively,” Nappi said on Friday.

Boeing’s Background Story

Starliner’s journey to this historic crewed test mission began in 2014, when NASA enlisted both Boeing and SpaceX to develop a spacecraft that could carry astronauts to the International Space Station. This was called the Commercial Crew Program by the federal agency.

The vehicle has suffered years of delays, roadblocks and additional costs that have cost the company more than $1 billion, according to public financial records.

The first Starliner test mission took place without a crew in December 2019. The test flight, littered with missteps, ended abruptly when the vehicle failed in orbit. The result was a symptom of software problems, including a coding error that caused an internal clock to go off 11 hours.

A second unmanned flight test in May 2022 revealed additional software issues and problems with some of the vehicle’s thrusters.

Stich indicated at a June 6 press conference that it is possible that engineers have not fully resolved these issues. “We thought we had solved the problem,” he said.

“I think we’re missing something fundamental that’s happening inside the thruster,” he added.

That’s the crux of the mysteries Boeing and NASA are trying to unravel during the extended mission of the Starliner spacecraft.

Long-term stay in space

It is not unusual for astronauts to unexpectedly extend their stay aboard the space station – by days, weeks or even months.

For example, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio would spend about six months aboard the International Space Station for his maiden voyage to low Earth orbit, launching in September 2022. Instead, he spent a total of 371 days in space after a coolant leak was discovered coming from his original flight – a Russian Soyuz capsule – while docked with the space station.

Astronauts also regularly stay on the space station for days longer due to a variety of factors, such as bad weather on Earth or other changes to their schedule.

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