Boeing Starliner astronaut says the spacecraft is ‘truly amazing’ despite malfunctions 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 weeklong stay initially expected.

The vehicle has suffered technical issues that have delayed its return indefinitely, and there’s still no return date on the horizon.

But the two astronauts piloting this historic test mission mostly spoke favorably about the vehicle that carried them to the International Space Station, marking the inaugural crewed flight of the Boeing-built spacecraft.

“Launch was spectacular. I mean, truly amazing,” Butch Wilmore, one of two NASA astronauts helming this mission, said in a Wednesday news briefing. “And then we got into our operational capabilities checks, and the spacecraft performed unbelievably well.”

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

“But thankfully, we had practiced and we had gotten certified for manual control, and so we took over manual control for over an hour,” Wilmore added. Ultimately all but one of the thrusters was recovered before docking, according to NASA.

In addition to those thruster issues, Starliner experienced helium leaks on the first leg of the trip.

To learn more about the propulsion problems, the Starliner team is conducting tests on the ground in New Mexico. That testing should be wrapped up by this weekend, officials said during a briefing Wednesday afternoon. They added that testing plans encountered a “hiccup” in the form of Hurricane Beryl, which made landfall in the US July 8.

While NASA still hasn’t shared a projected return date for Williams and Wilmore, Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said on Wednesday that the “big driver” for timing is getting the astronauts home before the SpaceX Crew-9 mission arrives with more astronauts in August.

“That’s kind of a back end. I think we’re really working to try to follow the data and see when’s the earliest that we could target for undock and landing,” Stich said.

“I think some of the data suggests, optimistically, maybe it’s by the end of July,” Stich added.

An eventful trip

Starliner’s inaugural crewed mission took flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 5, ending years of delays that have surrounded the vehicle as it’s endured development setbacks, cost overruns and even an uncrewed test mission that suffered a mission-ending error and had to be flown again.

NASA and Boeing have said that the fresh wave of issues affecting this flight should not prevent the spacecraft from bringing its crew — astronauts Sunita Williams and Wilmore — safely home from space. Yet they have not named an expected time frame for Williams and Wilmore’s return while insisting the crew is not “stuck.”

“I feel confident that, if we had to, if there was a problem with the International Space Station, we would get in (the Starliner spacecraft) and we could undock, talk to our team, and figure out the best way to come home,” Williams said.

“We’re absolutely confident,” Wilmore said of Starliner’s capability to get them home.

The reason that teams on the ground say they want to keep the Starliner safely attached to the International Space Station for now is so that they can continue working to find out what caused the thruster issues and helium leaks. Both problems are on a portion of the Starliner that is not supposed to survive reentry back to Earth, leaving ground teams with few options to continue gathering data from the component after Williams and Wilmore return home.

“This is a test flight — we were expecting to find some things,” Williams added, echoing comments she made before liftoff. “We are finding stuff, and we’re correcting it and making changes, making updates with our control team.”

Boeing’s Mark Nappi, the company’s vice president and manager of the Starliner program, said Wednesday that a goal of the additional thruster testing is to understand whether the thrusters will perform as expected on the way home.

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

Removal of suitcases

Just ahead of liftoff in June, NASA reorganized the cargo on board Starliner, removing two suitcases for Williams and Wilmore and replacing them with a 150-pound (68-kilogram) pump needed to get the space station bathroom working as intended.

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

The pump’s failure “put us in a position where we’d have to store an awful lot of urine,” said Dana Weigel, manager for NASA’s International Space Station Program, before the flight. She added that the urine was being stored in containers on board the station.

That’s why NASA had to scramble to get a replacement part on the next flight to the space station, opting to send it with Williams and Wilmore at the expense of some of their more personal comforts.

The two suitcases that were removed held clothes and toiletries — including shampoo and soaps — that Wilmore and Williams selected.

Weigel added that spare clothes and toiletries were already on the station for Williams and Wilmore to use.

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

Test flights: SpaceX’s vs. Boeing’s

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is designed to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which had its first crewed test mission, called Demo-2, in 2020 that 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, however, is not always straightforward. SpaceX designed its cargo Dragon spacecraft years before its Crew Dragon capsule, while Boeing somewhat started from scratch with Starliner.

But SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission looked far different from Starliner’s debut crewed flight.

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

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

Williams and Wilmore, on the other hand, are approaching their 36th day in space for a mission that officials initially billed as a roughly weeklong trip.

What’s more, the astronauts are about 10 days short of the 45-day maximum duration that NASA initially laid out, but officials are now considering extending that maximum to at least 90 days.

Williams said Wednesday that she and Wilmore have joined the astronauts already on board the station to help with regular tasks.

“We’ve been doing science for them, maintenance, some major maintenance that it’s been waiting for a little while, like stuff that’s been on the books for a little bit,” Williams said.

Stich also said Wednesday that “the beautiful thing about Commercial Crew Program is that we have two vehicles” — referring to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which is set 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 as to whether we need to do anything different,” Stich said, referring to the flexibility that Crew Dragon grants the International Space Station schedule and this test flight. “But the prime option today is to return Butch and Suni on Starliner.”

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