Boeing's Starliner Faces Continued Challenges, Delays Astronauts' Return

Boeing's Starliner Faces Continued Challenges, Delays Astronauts' Return
Image Source: NASABy Tue, 25 Jun 2024 20:36:57 GMT

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, on its maiden crewed mission, is experiencing persistent issues that have delayed the return of two NASA astronauts from the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, who arrived at the ISS on June 6, were initially scheduled to spend eight to ten days in space. However, their return has been postponed multiple times due to technical problems.

Initial Delays and Current Issues

The Starliner’s troubles began even before launch. Initially set for May, the launch was delayed due to a helium leak and power supply issues, eventually lifting off on June 5. Since arriving at the ISS, the spacecraft has encountered five additional helium leaks and problems with its reaction control system thrusters, which are crucial for manoeuvring. These issues have necessitated a thorough assessment and delayed the astronauts' return to Earth.

On June 18, Boeing announced another delay, extending the mission to June 26 to address these issues and accommodate two planned spacewalks. The delay was compounded by concerns about the thrusters and a propellant valve that failed to close completely. As of now, no new return date has been provided.

Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, emphasized that mission managers are taking a cautious approach, ensuring all safety protocols are followed meticulously. The crew, meanwhile, is not in immediate danger and has ample supplies on the ISS. Wilmore and Williams, both veteran astronauts, are well-equipped to handle the extended mission. Wilmore has previously spent 178 days in space, while Williams has logged 322 days.

NASA and Boeing are working closely to resolve the issues. The Starliner’s expendable propulsion system, part of its service module, is at the heart of the current problems. The system is essential for detaching the spacecraft from the ISS and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Overheating thrusters and helium leaks related to the frequency of thruster use are being scrutinized through simulations and data analysis in Houston.

The mission management team, comprising NASA and Boeing personnel, is exploring various fixes, including software updates and hardware usage adjustments. If these efforts prove successful, the Starliner will use its thrusters to undock from the ISS and embark on a six-hour journey back to Earth, culminating in a landing in the southwestern United States, aided by parachutes and airbags.

Despite the propulsion system challenges, NASA maintains that the Starliner is still capable of safely returning the astronauts if necessary. In an emergency, the spacecraft could serve as an escape pod from the ISS. However, if the technical issues cannot be resolved, NASA has contingency plans. One option includes using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which is currently docked at the ISS and capable of carrying additional astronauts in an emergency.

This mission marks a critical test for Boeing as it seeks to establish itself in the commercial human-spaceflight market, a sector currently dominated by SpaceX. Boeing and SpaceX were selected by NASA in 2014 to develop commercial space transport capabilities. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has been operational since 2020, whereas Boeing’s Starliner has faced multiple delays and technical challenges.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, previously criticized Boeing for having "too many non-technical managers," suggesting organizational issues might be contributing to these technical problems. On Earth, Boeing has also faced scrutiny for quality control in its aviation operations, with whistleblowers alleging that the company has cut corners.