Two astronauts stuck at space station as Boeing races to understand spacecraft issues

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In a mission intended to showcase Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft capabilities, NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore find themselves in an extended stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) due to technical issues. Initially planned as a week-long trip, the mission has stretched to at least 20 days, with the astronauts now scheduled to return no earlier than June 26.

Mission delays and technical issues

The Starliner spacecraft, launched on June 6, experienced several problems during its journey to the ISS, including helium leaks and thruster malfunctions. These issues have forced NASA and Boeing engineers to extend the mission to conduct further analysis while the spacecraft remains safely docked at the ISS.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, Steve Stich, stated that there is confidence in Starliner’s ability to return the astronauts safely. However, the need to address the technical issues thoroughly is paramount to ensure the spacecraft’s reliability for future missions.

Boeing’s response and historical context

Boeing has framed this mission as both a success and a critical learning opportunity. Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and program manager of the Starliner program, acknowledged the “unplanned” aspects of the mission but emphasized the importance of understanding and resolving these issues.

This mission is not Boeing’s first encounter with setbacks. The Starliner program, chosen alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in 2014 to develop astronaut-carrying spacecraft, has faced numerous delays and technical challenges, costing Boeing over $1 billion. The first uncrewed Starliner mission in 2019 encountered significant software problems, and a second uncrewed test in 2022 revealed additional issues with the vehicle’s thrusters.

The challenge of safe return

Returning from orbit is inherently perilous, with the spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at over 22 times the speed of sound and enduring temperatures around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Boeing has redesigned and tested the parachutes to ensure a safe landing on solid ground, a notable difference from SpaceX’s ocean splashdowns.

Comparison with SpaceX

While Boeing continues to address its challenges, SpaceX has successfully completed multiple crewed missions since its first in 2020. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, benefiting from a decade of cargo missions, has become a reliable option for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS.

Michael Lembeck, an aerospace engineering associate professor, noted that SpaceX had a head start with its cargo program, which provided valuable experience for its crewed missions. Boeing, by contrast, has had to build its crew vehicle from scratch, leading to a steeper learning curve.

Looking ahead

As Boeing works to resolve the Starliner issues, there remains a contingency plan involving SpaceX’s Crew Dragon if needed. This mission’s outcome will be crucial for Boeing’s future in human spaceflight, impacting not only the Starliner program but also the company’s reputation in the aerospace industry.




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