Boeing Starliner astronaut says spacecraft is ‘truly amazing’ despite failures and delays

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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and its crew have been in space for more than a month, much longer than the week originally expected.

The vehicle suffered from technical problems, which postponed its return indefinitely. There is still no return date in sight.

The two astronauts who piloted this historic test mission were especially positive about the vehicle that carried them to the International Space Station. It was the first manned flight of the Boeing-built spacecraft.

“The launch was spectacular. I mean, it was really amazing,” Butch Wilmore, one of two NASA astronauts commanding the mission, said in a press conference Wednesday. “And then we went into our operational capability checks, and the spacecraft performed incredibly well.”

Wilmore praised the vehicle’s precise control. But he also said that when several thrusters unexpectedly failed as the Starliner approached its docking port on the International Space Station, he felt like the thrust was “degraded.”

“But fortunately, we had practiced and were certified for manual control, so we took over manual control for over an hour,” Wilmore added. Ultimately, all but one of the thrusters were recovered before docking, NASA said.

In addition to the thruster problems, the Starliner also suffered from helium leaks during the first part of the journey.

To learn more about the propulsion issues, the Starliner team is conducting ground tests in New Mexico. Those tests should be completed this weekend, officials said at a briefing Wednesday afternoon. They added that the test plans hit a “hiccup” in the form of Hurricane Beryl, which made landfall in the U.S. on July 8.

While NASA has yet to announce a planned return date for Williams and Wilmore, Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, said Wednesday that the “big driver” for the timing is to get the astronauts home before the SpaceX Crew-9 mission arrives with more astronauts in August.

“That’s kind of the back end. I think we’re really working on following the data and seeing when is the earliest we can aim for undocking and landing,” Stich said.

“I think some of the data optimistically suggests it might be late July,” Stich added.

An eventful journey

Starliner’s first crewed mission took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 5, ending years of delays that have plagued the spacecraft due to development setbacks, cost overruns and even an uncrewed test mission that caused a mission-ending error and a re-flight.

NASA and Boeing have said the new wave of problems plaguing this flight should not prevent the spacecraft from carrying its crew – astronauts. Sunita Williams and Wilmore — safely home from space. However, they have not given an expected time frame for Williams and Wilmore’s return, insisting that the crew is not “stuck.”

“I’m confident that if we needed to, if there was a problem with the International Space Station, we would get into the Starliner spacecraft and we would be able to undock, talk to our team and figure out the best way to get home,” Williams said.

“We’re very confident,” Wilmore said of Starliner’s ability to bring them home.

The reason teams on the ground say they want to keep Starliner safely attached to the International Space Station for now is so they can continue to work on determining the cause of the booster problems and the helium leaks. Both of these problems are on a part of Starliner that is not supposed to survive the return to Earth, leaving teams on the ground with few options to continue collecting data from the part after Williams and Wilmore return.

“This is a test flight — we expected to find some things,” Williams added, reiterating comments she made before launch. “We find things, and we fix them and make changes, and make updates with our control team.”

Boeing’s Mark Nappi, vice chairman and manager of the Starliner program, said Wednesday that the purpose of the additional thrust tests is to determine whether the thrusters perform as expected on the return flight.

“If the thrusters were damaged in some way, what would we do differently?” Nappi said. “We don’t believe we have damaged thrusters, but again, we want to fill in the gaps and do this test to assure ourselves of that.”

Removing suitcases

Just before launch in June, NASA rearranged the cargo aboard the Starliner, removing two of Williams and Wilmore’s suitcases and replacing them with a 150-pound pump needed to keep the space station’s bathroom working as intended.

In space, every bit of fluid is important, and astronauts have long used a water processing system to convert urine into drinking water. But in May, part of that conversion system broke.

The pump failure “put us in a position where we had to store a tremendous amount of urine,” Dana Weigel, manager of NASA’s International Space Station Program, said before the flight, adding that the urine was stored in containers aboard the space station.

Therefore, NASA had to do everything it could to get a replacement part on the next flight to the space station. They decided to send it with Williams and Wilmore, but at the cost of their personal comfort.

The two suitcases taken contained clothing and toiletries, including shampoo and soap, that Wilmore and Williams had selected.

Weigel added that spare clothes and toiletries were already at the station for Williams and Wilmore.

“I’m not aware of any issues regarding availability of clothing or food — we basically don’t have any,” Stich noted Wednesday, adding that a resupply mission flown by Northrop Grumman is scheduled to arrive at the station around August.

Test flights: SpaceX vs. Boeing

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is designed to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which flew its first crewed test mission in 2020, called Demo-2, which appeared to go off without a hitch.

Both Starliner and Crew Dragon are part of the same NASA program, called Commercial Crew.

Comparing the two vehicles isn’t always straightforward, however. SpaceX designed its cargo Dragon spacecraft years before its Crew Dragon capsule, while Boeing started more or less from scratch with Starliner.

But SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission looked very different from Starliner’s first manned flight.

During SpaceX’s Demo-2, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley gave at least two tours of their spacecraft while en route to the space station. They also held a press conference from the space station on June 1, 2020, the day after docking.

Hurley and Behnken knew their mission would likely last months. NASA said before departure that the agency wanted to keep the space station fully staffed and wait to bring Behnken and Hurley home until the next crew mission was ready to fly. In the end, SpaceX’s Demo 2 mission lasted 64 days — well short of the advertised maximum trip length of 110 days.

Williams and Wilmore, on the other hand, have been in space for nearly 36 days on a mission initially billed by authorities as a trip of about a week.

In addition, the astronauts are only 10 days away from the 45-day maximum stay that NASA initially set, but officials are now considering extending that maximum to at least 90 days.

Williams said Wednesday that she and Wilmore have joined the astronauts aboard the space station to help with regular duties.

“We’ve done some scientific research for them, we’ve done some maintenance, some major maintenance that’s been overdue for a while, things that have been on the books for a while,” Williams said.

Stich also said Wednesday that “the great thing about the Commercial Crew Program is we have two vehicles” — referring to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which is scheduled to fly new crew members to the space station in August.

“We have a little bit more time to look at the data and then make a decision if we need to do something different,” Stich said, referring to the flexibility Crew Dragon offers the International Space Station schedule and this test flight. “But the best option today is to send Butch and Suni back to Starliner.”

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