NASA insists Boeing Starliner crew ‘not stranded’ on ISS

NASA reaffirmed on Friday that the first astronauts to ride Boeing’s problematic Starliner are not “stranded” at the International Space Station, even if there is no set timeline for their return.

After weeks of bad news due to the spaceship’s delayed return, officials tried to provide a favorable picture of the situation in an uncharacteristically defensive press conference.

On June 5, astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams launched into space after two failed launch attempts when the crew was strapped in and ready to fly, and years of delays and safety concerns regarding Starliner.

The next day they docked for what was supposed to be a week or so of stay, but thruster failures and discovered helium leaks during the voyage have caused several delays in their return.

“Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” declared Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.

He added the pair were “enjoying their time on the space station” and “our plan is to continue to return them on Starliner and return them home at the right time.”

Before that can happen, however, ground teams need to run more testing to better understand the root causes.

Prior to launch, Starliner was known to have one helium leak, but other leaks surfaced throughout the voyage. Helium gives pressure to the propulsion system despite not burning.

Separately, Starliner’s fine-manoeuvre thrusters first malfunctioned, which caused a delay in docking. Although all but one of these rockets were able to be restarted, engineers are unsure of why Starliner’s computer “deselected” them.

According to Stich, the thruster testing would start on July 2 and go for at least two weeks.

“It is pretty painful to read the things that are out there,” added Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and program manager of its Commercial Crew Program.

“We’ve gotten a really good test flight that’s been accomplished so far, and it’s being viewed rather negatively.”

New spacecraft often have teething troubles; the Space Shuttle program had its fair share of teething troubles in its early years.

However, the Starliner project has suffered from being compared to Crew Dragon by SpaceX. Both businesses received multibillion-dollar contracts in 2014 to transport US space agency personnel to the International Space Station (ISS); SpaceX emerged victorious in 2020 and has since transported scores of passengers.

Following the safety controversy involving its 737 Max passenger jets, the reputation of aerospace giant Boeing has also taken a severe hit.

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