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Monday, July 15, 2024

NASA astronauts stranded in Space due to Boeing’s Starliner malfunctions

Williams and Wilmore embarked on their journey on June 5, launching from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

NASA astronauts Sunita “Suni” Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore are currently stranded aboard the International Space Station (ISS) due to technical difficulties with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Originally scheduled to return on June 13, their mission has been extended indefinitely as engineers work to resolve issues with the spacecraft.

The Mission and Technical Challenges

Williams and Wilmore embarked on their journey on June 5, launching from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This marked the first crewed flight of the Starliner, a critical step in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to provide alternative transportation to the ISS alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

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However, the mission encountered several obstacles. Initially, a launch attempt on June 1 was scrapped due to a ground control computer performance issue. During the 25-hour flight to the ISS, the spacecraft experienced helium leaks and a malfunctioning thruster. Upon arrival on June 6, four more of the 28 thrusters failed, delaying the docking process.

Efforts to Resolve the Issues

Despite the setbacks, Boeing reported that four of the five previously malfunctioning thrusters are now operational. A Boeing spokesperson emphasized that only one out of 27 thrusters remains offline, which should not impact the return mission. NASA and Boeing engineers are using the extended stay to further assess the propulsion system issues. NASA Chief Aeronautics Engineer Steven Hirshorn explained that the problems are located in the spacecraft’s service module, which will burn up upon reentry, preventing detailed analysis on Earth.

Daily Life Aboard the ISS

While engineers work on the Starliner, Williams and Wilmore are making the most of their extended mission. They have been involved in routine maintenance tasks, including replacing the pressure control and pump assembly motor of the station’s restroom. Additionally, they are testing systems within the Starliner to ensure it is ready for the return journey.

Uncertain Return Date

NASA initially aimed for a return in early July, but the date has been rescheduled multiple times, with no fixed date currently set. Internally, NASA is targeting July 6 for the return, though this remains uncertain. The Starliner is designed to stay docked at the ISS for up to 45 days, extendable to 72 days using backup systems. The spacecraft’s technical issues need to be resolved before it can safely return the astronauts to Earth.

Alternative Return Options

In case the Starliner is deemed incapable of a safe return, the astronauts might return aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which is also docked at the ISS. This scenario, though considered unlikely, would be an embarrassment for Boeing, highlighting the challenges it has faced in developing the Starliner. Since its inception, the Starliner program has been plagued with delays and technical issues, costing Boeing approximately $1.5 billion.

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The success of the Starliner is crucial for providing NASA with a reliable alternative to the Crew Dragon. Back in 2014, NASA commissioned both Boeing and SpaceX to develop commercial crew capsules. While SpaceX began shuttling astronauts in 2020, Boeing’s spacecraft has faced significant setbacks. Ensuring the Starliner’s success is vital for maintaining competition and redundancy in space transportation.