NASA insists Boeing Starliner crew are not ‘stranded’ in space

The return to Earth of Boeing’s Starliner capsule is on hold indefinitely pending the results of new thruster tests and continued analysis of helium leaks that emerged during the ship’s rendezvous with the International Space Station, NASA said Friday.

But agency officials insisted that Starliner commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and co-pilot Sunita Williams are not “stranded” in space.

A camera aboard the International Space Station captured a spectacular image of Boeing's Starliner crew ferry as the two spacecraft sailed over North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East earlier in the ongoing test flight.  The white drum-shaped service module, which houses the spacecraft's main propulsion system, is attached to the base of the gray cone-shaped crew capsule.  /Credit: NASA

“We don’t have a target (landing) date as of today,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, told reporters on a conference call. “We’re not going to give a specific date until we complete that test.

“So essentially it’s completing the testing, completing the fault tree, taking that analysis to (the mission management team) and then having an agency-level review. And then we’ll lay out the rest of the plan, from undocking to landing. I think we’re on the right track.”

The problem for NASA and Boeing is that the Starliner’s service module, which houses the helium lines, thrusters and other critical systems, is discarded and burns up in the atmosphere before reentry.

Engineers won’t be able to study the hardware afterwards, so they want to collect as much data as possible before Wilmore and Williams go home.

But the crew’s repeatedly extended stay on the space station while that analysis continued has prompted some observers to say that Wilmore and Williams are stranded in orbit, an impression that appears to have taken root in the lack of updates from NASA, as the target landing date had been set. pushed back repeatedly.

Stich and Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, said that description is a mischaracterization.

“It’s pretty painful to read some of the stuff that’s coming out,” Nappi said. “We had a really good test flight … and it’s being looked at pretty negatively. We’re not stuck on the ISS. The crew is not in danger and there’s no increased risk if we decide to bring Suni and Butch back to Earth.”

Stich added that he “wants to make it very clear that Butch and Suni are not stranded in space. Our plan is to return them on Starliner and bring them back home at the right time. We’ll do some more work have to do to get there for the final return, but they are safe on the space station. Their spacecraft is working well and they are enjoying their time on the space station.

The Starliner was launched on June 5 on the program’s first crewed test flight with one known helium leak. The other four were created during the ship’s rendezvous with the space station when the jets were rapidly pulsed to fine-tune the Starliner’s approach.

Another shot of the Starliner's service module as the spacecraft lifted off for attachment to the Atlas 5 launch vehicle. / Credit: United Launch AllianceAnother view of the Starliner's service module as the spacecraft is lifted up for attachment to the Atlas 5 launch vehicle. / Credit: United Launch Alliance

Another shot of the Starliner’s service module as the spacecraft lifted off for attachment to the Atlas 5 launch vehicle. / Credit: United Launch Alliance

While docked at the station, the valves are closed to isolate the helium system, eliminating additional leakage. But once Wilmore and Williams leave and go home, the valves are opened again to repressurize the lines or manifolds.

Stich said that even with the known leaks, the spacecraft will have ten times as much helium as it needs to get home, but engineers want to make sure the leaks don’t get worse once the system is pressurized again.

The five aft thrusters in the Starliner’s service module also did not function as expected during the space station’s approach on June 6.

After docking, four of the five jets were tested successfully and despite slightly lower power levels than expected, they are considered good for disconnection and re-entry. The fifth thruster was not “hot fired”, as previous performance indicated that it had actually failed.

But managers want to know what caused the unexpected behavior in the other four. Starting next week, a new thruster identical to the one aboard the Starliner will be tested at a government facility in White Sands, New Mexico, just as the in-orbit thrusters were fired during the rendezvous and docking of the Starliner.

“We’ll recreate that profile,” Stich said. “Then we’ll put a pretty aggressive profile in the thruster for the (undocking to re-entry) phase.

Starliner co-pilot Sunita Williams, left, and Commander Barry Starliner co-pilot Sunita Williams, left, and Commander Barry

Starliner co-pilot Sunita Williams, left, and Commander Barry

It is possible that the problems with the rear-facing thrusters were caused by higher-than-normal temperatures due to the Starliner’s orientation relative to the sun, or the series of rapid, repetitive firings commanded by the flight software. Or both.

The ground tests, which are expected to take “a couple of weeks,” could potentially provide evidence for one side or the other.

“This is a real opportunity to examine a thruster like we’ve had in space on the ground, a detailed inspection,” Stich said. “Once that test is completed, we will look at the landing plan.”

As for the impression that the crew is stranded in space, Stich and Nappi both pointed out that a defunct Russian satellite in a slightly lower, more tilted orbit than the space station suffered a catastrophic “event” that killed more than 100 of its of the space probe. traceable debris.

While flight controllers assessed the orbit of the wreckage, the nine-person crew of the space station was instructed to “stay inside” their own spacecraft, ready to depart immediately and return to Earth in the event of a damaging impact.

Two Russian cosmonauts and NASA’s Tracy Dyson boarded their Soyuz ferry, while three NASA astronauts and another cosmonaut floated in their SpaceX Crew Dragon. Wilmore and Williams rode out of their safe haven in the Starliner and were cleared to fly home if needed.

After about an hour, the crew was given the signal to return to normal work. If the Starliner had been deemed unsafe, Wilmore and Williams would likely have been told to take refuge in the Crew Dragon. But that wasn’t the case.

“We have permission to act as a lifeboat in case of an emergency on the ISS,” Nappi said. “That means we can return with the Starliner at any time, and that’s what we’ve proven this week.”

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