Boeing Starliner: Two astronauts wait to go home amid problems with the spacecraft

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The Boeing Starliner spacecraft is set to celebrate its big milestone this month: ferrying two NASA astronauts on a round-trip flight to the International Space Station, proving that the long-awaited and over-budget capsule is ready for the mission.

Starliner is halfway to achieving that goal.

But the two veteran astronauts leading this test flight are now in temporary mode — extending their stay aboard the space station for a second time while engineers on Earth scramble to learn more about the problems that plagued the first leg of their journey.

Spaceflight veterans Sonny Williams and Butch Wilmore arrived at the space station aboard the Starliner on June 6. NASA initially expected their stay to last about a week.

But problems the rover encountered en route, including a helium leak and its thrusters suddenly stopping working, raised questions about how the back half of the mission would be carried out.

NASA announced Tuesday that Williams and Willmore will not return until June 26, extending their mission to at least 20 days, as engineers race to get a better understanding of the spacecraft’s problems while safely attaching it to the space station.

Officials said there was no reason to believe the Starliner wouldn’t be able to bring astronauts home, although “we really want to work on what’s left of the data,” Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said at a conference on Tuesday. . Press Conference.

Meanwhile, Boeing sought to frame the mission as a successful learning opportunity, even though it left the Starliner team grappling with the “unplanned” aspect of the mission, Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and director of the Starliner program, said on Tuesday.

It is not uncommon for astronauts to do this Unexpectedly extending their stay Aboard the space station – for days, weeks, or even months. (NASA also said the Starliner could spend up to 45 days in the orbiting laboratory if necessary, according to Stitch.)

But the situation is creating a moment of uncertainty and embarrassment, joining a long list of similar blunders made by the Boeing Starliner program, which is already years behind schedule. It also adds to the chorus of unfavorable news that has followed Boeing as a company for some time.

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Boeing and NASA engineers said they chose to leave the Starliner — and with it Williams and Wilmore — aboard the station longer than expected primarily to perform additional analysis. Helium leaks and propulsion problems have occurred in a part of the vehicle not intended to survive a reentry from space, so mission teams are delaying the spacecraft’s return as part of a last-ditch effort to find out everything they can about what went wrong.

Danger looms any time a spacecraft returns home from orbit. This is perhaps the most dangerous part of any mission into space.

NASA

NASA’s Boeing Crew flight test Starliner spacecraft was photographed docked at the forward port of the Harmony module on June 13, as the International Space Station orbited 262 miles above Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

The flight will require the Starliner vehicle to collide with Earth’s thick atmosphere while traveling at more than 22 times the speed of sound. This process will heat the exterior of the spacecraft to a temperature of approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then, a set of parachutes — which Boeing redesigned and tested as recently as January — must safely slow the capsule down before it reaches solid ground. (Starliner will be the first American-made capsule to parachute into space Landing on the ground Instead of throwing it into the ocean. Boeing hopes this approach will facilitate post-flight recovery and refurbishment of the Starliner.)

Starliner’s journey to this historic crewed test mission began in 2014 when NASA tapped Boeing and SpaceX to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

At the time, Boeing was seen as the powerful aerospace giant most likely to get the job done first, while SpaceX was the unpredictable newcomer.

But over the past decade, the tides have changed.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft safely completed its first crewed mission — which appeared to go off without a hitch — in 2020. The vehicle has been regularly transporting astronauts and paying customers ever since.

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Joel Koski/NASA

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launched NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station, marking the spacecraft’s inaugural crewed flight, on May 30, 2020.

The two astronauts who commanded Crew Dragon’s inaugural flight – Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – also stayed on board the space station longer than expected, spending more than 60 days instead of the short period expected on such test flights.

But Hurley and Behnken’s stay was extended so the astronauts could help with daily activities aboard the space station, which at the time was understaffed. The extension was not directly related to specific software or hardware issues related to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle.

On the other hand, spacecraft problems have marred Boeing’s Starliner program almost every step of the way. The car faced years of delays, setbacks and additional expenses that cost the company more than $1 billion, according to public financial records.

The Starliner’s first test mission, conducted without a crew in late 2019, was riddled with errors. The vehicle failed in orbit, a symptom of software problems that included a coding error that stopped the internal clock by 11 hours.

second Unmanned flight test in 2022 Additional software issues and problems with some of the vehicle’s engines have been detected.

Stitch, NASA’s program manager, noted on June 6 Press Conference It is possible that engineers may not have fully resolved these issues as of 2022.

“We thought we had fixed this problem,” Stitch said, adding: “I think we were missing something fundamental going on inside the engine.”

Michael Lembeck, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who was a consultant to Boeing’s spaceflight division from 2009 to 2014, told CNN it would be difficult to determine whether additional ground tests would have detected the propulsion problems at hand.

But Lembeck emphasized that evaluating the success of this test mission is not as simple as directly comparing it to the inaugural crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle.

For example, he said, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule — the predecessor to the Crew Dragon Director — completed more than a decade of unmanned cargo missions to the space station before the Crew Dragon lifted off.

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“SpaceX had a head start on the shipping program,” Lembeck said. I think they had an advantage that Boeing didn’t have. Boeing is having to build a crew vehicle from scratch.

However, if this Starliner testing mission encounters additional setbacks, it could put Boeing in a position where it has to rely on its competition to bring Williams and Willmore home.

“The awkward backup is that the Crew Dragon has to go and retrieve the astronauts,” Lembeck said. “The spacecraft could be sent out with two crew members and returned with four – and that might be the way home.”

Boeing executives have repeatedly sought to make clear that the Starliner program operates independently from other units of the company, including the commercial aircraft division that has been at the center of scandals for years.

“We have humans flying on this vehicle. We always take that seriously,” Nappi said during A.D the news In April, before the Starliner flight took off.

Nappi also announced at the time that the Starliner team was operating at “peak performance” and “really looking forward to executing” a safe mission.

When asked about that confirmation on Tuesday, NASA Executive Director Stitch said that officials at Boeing and NASA had always expected to find additional issues to solve during this test flight.

Williams hinted at this prediction during a… Press conference before the trip“We are always finding things, and we will always find them,” he said.

“Everything is not going to be absolutely perfect as we fly the spacecraft. We feel safe and comfortable with the way this spacecraft flies, and we have backups in case we need them,” Williams said.

However, Stitch acknowledged on Tuesday that Boeing and NASA may have been able to prevent some of the stoppages the Starliner experienced: “We probably could have done different tests on the ground to identify some (propulsion issues) earlier,” he said.

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