Starliner ‘stuck’ in space: NASA delayed Starliner return

NASA and Boeing have postponed the return of the Starliner spacecraft to Earth for the second time. Two astronauts will stay on the International Space Station (ISS) for four more days. The crew is scheduled to return on June 26 to get more time to conduct flight tests.

Artist’s illustration of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft that will dock with the International Space Station, as seen in the display of an astronaut’s spacesuit visor. Author: Boeing

“We want to give our teams a little bit more time to look at the data, do some analysis and make sure they’re really ready to come home,” said NASA commercial flight program manager Steve Stich.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule was launched on June 5 on a United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket with NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams aboard. The spacecraft made a risky docking with the orbital station, which was accompanied by technical problems. Five of the spacecraft’s engines failed during the approach, four of which were later recovered.

Starliner also has five helium leaks, one of which was discovered before launch. Engineers believe that the leaks may be related to the operation of the engines. Stich assured that over the past nine days the leakage rate had decreased. Helium is used in the spacecraft’s propulsion systems to operate the engines without flammable or toxic substances. As NASA assures, the helium supply on board the Starliner is sufficient for the return.

The Starliner spacecraft is docked to the Harmony module as the International Space Station orbits 400 kilometers above the Mediterranean coast near Egypt. Author: NASA

The command also evaluates the condition of the RCS oxidizer isolation valve in the service module, which is not properly closed. The RCS uses the engines to control the attitude and the valve controls the oxidizer flow to burn fuel in the engines. Despite the problems, Stich assured that “the Starliner crew feel really comfortable about return now.”

Identified shortcomings of Starliner

The manned test flight is part of NASA’s commercial flight program to transport crew and cargo to and from the ISS under a $4.3 billion contract. NASA’s other partner, SpaceX, has already delivered eight crews to the station, while the Boeing Starliner has suffered several delays and technical problems.

Boeing has made two flights to the ISS without a crew – both suffered problems. Now the first flight of a spacecraft with astronauts into orbit is underway. 

ISS and Starliner photographed by one of Maxar’s satellites. Source: Maxar

“This is a test flight and we’re going to learn some things. So here we are, we’ve learned that our helium system is not performing as designed, albeit manageable, it’s still not working like we had designed it, so we got to go figure that out,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing vice president and commercial flight program manager. 

NASA and Boeing officials have confirmed that the Starliner is safe for astronaut return. But the team decided to leave it docked to the ISS for additional testing in orbit. Starliner can remain docked to the ISS for up to 45 days.

The trip home is expected to take about six hours, and the spacecraft will land in the Utah desert on June 26.

Earlier we reported on how astronauts saw a Starliner flight against the background of the aurora.

According to