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Boeing engine tests could take ‘weeks’ before astronauts return home

Boeing engine tests could take ‘weeks’ before astronauts return home

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams have spent much longer than expected.
NASA/Robert Markowitz

  • Two astronauts headed to the International Space Station aboard a new Boeing spacecraft on June 5.
  • They were supposed to return in eight days, but engine problems and helium leaks delayed their return.
  • NASA and Boeing say there is no cause for concern, and that the astronauts are busy.

The good news for Boeing’s Starliner capsule is that it has finally succeeded in carrying humans into low Earth orbit. The problem is that it hasn’t been able to land them yet — and it may be some time before it can.

The problems that led to astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams extending their stay on the International Space Station were the culmination of years of shortcomings that delayed the Starliner launch, NPR reported On July 3, the spacecraft began leaking some of the helium that forms part of its propulsion system, the agency said, and a minority of its engines also experienced problems.

In a conference call late last month, NASA official Steve Sitch said the thrusters were undergoing rigorous testing on Earth to try to replicate the problems seen in space. He said the tests could begin July 2 and last “a couple of weeks.”

“I want to make it clear that Butch and Sonny are not stuck in space. They are safe aboard the space station, their spacecraft is working fine, and they are enjoying their time aboard the space station,” Sitch said.

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The delays underscore how Boeing has fallen behind SpaceX, which sent its eighth crewed flight into orbit in March, and the rival company led by Elon Musk has also gained ground in the national security arena. The Wall Street Journal reported On July 1, Boeing flew more classified cargo, such as spy satellites, into space than United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

In addition to ground testing, NASA has been testing Starliner’s thrusters and systems while it remains docked to the International Space Station. Wilmore and Williams aren’t alone; they’ve joined Russian and American astronauts who are there on an ongoing mission, and space agency officials say there’s no shortage of supplies or anything that requires them to rush.

Still, the delays underscore Boeing’s business woes. The company’s commercial airplane business has come under regulatory scrutiny since a door seal exploded on an Alaska Airlines flight in January, and Reuters and other outlets have reported that the U.S. Justice Department is preparing to file criminal charges related to deadly crashes of its 737 Max jets.

Bank of America analyst Ron Epstein told NPR that the company focused on making money for its investors at the expense of its “core engineering business.”

In May, Musk tweeted a similar criticism.

“There are too many non-technical managers at Boeing,” he wrote.