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NASA orders more tests on the Starliner, but says the crew is not stuck in space

NASA orders more tests on the Starliner, but says the crew is not stuck in space
Zoom in / Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is seen docking at the International Space Station on June 13.

Officials from NASA and Boeing responded Friday to headlines that the commercial Starliner crew capsule is stuck at the International Space Station, but said they need more time to analyze data before formally approving the spacecraft for undock and reentry.

NASA’s two astronauts, Commander Butch Wilmore and Pilot Sonny Williams, will spend at least a few more weeks on the space station while engineers on Earth conduct propulsion tests to better understand issues with the Starliner’s propulsion system in orbit. Wilmore and Williams lifted off on June 5 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket and docked with the station the next day, completing the first part of the Starliner’s first test flight with astronauts.

NASA managers originally planned for the Starliner spacecraft to remain docked to the space station for at least eight days, though they left open the possibility of extending the mission. The test flight is now likely to last at least a month and a half, and possibly longer, as engineers grapple with a helium leak and glitches in the Starliner’s service module.

Initially, the batteries on the Starliner were only certified for a 45-day mission, but NASA officials said they are looking to extend that limit after ensuring the batteries are working well.

“We have the luxury of time,” said Ken Bowersox, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “We’re still in the middle of a test mission. We’re still moving forward.”

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Previously, NASA and Boeing officials postponed Starliner’s return and landing from mid-June, then from June 26, and now they have pushed past a possible landing opportunity in early July. Last week, NASA said in a statement that the agency’s senior leadership would meet to formally review Starliner’s readiness to return, something that was not part of the original plan.

“We’re not stuck on the International Space Station.”

Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Friday he wanted to clear up a “misunderstanding” that led to headlines claiming the Starliner spacecraft was stuck or stranded on the space station.

“I want to be clear that Butch and Sonny are not stuck in space,” Stitch said. “Our plan is to still get them back on the Starliner and get them back home in time. We have a little bit of work to do to get there for the final return, but they are safe aboard the space station.” “.

With Starliner docked, the space station currently hosts three different crewed spacecraft, including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Russia’s Soyuz. There are no serious plans under consideration to bring Wilmore and Williams home on a different spacecraft.

“We obviously have the luxury of having multiple vehicles, and we’re working on contingency plans for a lot of different situations, but right now, we’re really focused on getting Butch and Sonny back on the Starliner,” Stitch said.

“We’re not stuck on the International Space Station,” said Mark Naby, Boeing’s vice president in charge of the Starliner program. “It’s very painful to read things up there. We’ve had a really good test flight done so far, and it’s being looked at somewhat negatively.”

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NASA officials should interact more frequently with reporters to fill information gaps about the Starliner test flight, Stitch said. Written updates from NASA are not always timely, and often lack detail and context.

NASA officials have approved the Starliner spacecraft’s return to Earth in the event that astronauts need to evacuate the space station for safety or medical reasons. But NASA has not yet approved the Starliner’s reentry into the atmosphere and landing under “nominal” conditions.

“When the situation is an emergency, we are prepared to put the crew on the spacecraft and bring them home as a lifeboat,” Bowersox said. “For a nominal situation, we want to look at the data further before we make the final decision to put the crew on the spacecraft, which is a decision serious enough to bring Senior management team (for approval).”