Uncertain Return for Boeing’s Starliner Crew Mission

Preeti Bali / 6:29 am / July 1, 2024

The first crewed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, carrying astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore, is encountering unexpected delays. Originally planned for a short stay, the mission now faces an uncertain return date due to technical issues with the spacecraft.

NASA Considers Mission Extension

NASA’s space agency is contemplating extending the Starliner’s mission from the initial 45 days to potentially 90 days. This decision hinges on resolving ongoing thruster malfunctions and helium leaks discovered during the spacecraft’s journey to the International Space Station (ISS).

Ground Tests Planned in New Mexico

To diagnose the cause of the thruster problems, Boeing and NASA plan to conduct ground tests in New Mexico. The outcome of these tests will significantly influence the Starliner’s return timeline. Ideally, a successful test would allow for a swift undocking and return to Earth.

Crew Adapts to Space Station Life

While awaiting a resolution, astronauts Williams and Wilmore have seamlessly integrated with the existing ISS crew. They are actively participating in routine tasks and space station operations.

Starliner’s Service Module Challenges

The technical hurdles stem from malfunctions within the Starliner’s service module, responsible for powering the spacecraft during flight. This disposable module cannot survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, engineers are prioritizing a thorough understanding of the issues before attempting a safe return.

Battery Life a Factor in Mission Extension

Extending the mission to 90 days hinges on the Starliner’s battery life. While currently recharging on the ISS, NASA needs to confirm sufficient power reserves for the extended duration.

Starliner Compared to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

The Starliner program’s challenges stand in stark contrast to the success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Under the same NASA Commercial Crew Program, Crew Dragon has completed several successful flights since its 2020 debut.

Space Station Activities Continue

Despite the Starliner’s situation, routine operations onboard the ISS continue. The crew conducted various tasks, including packing a cargo craft for disposal, space botany research, eye examinations, and maintenance activities.

Starliner Crew Conducts Botany Research

Commander Wilmore and Pilot Williams dedicated their day to reconfiguring a space botany facility within the Kibo module. This research is crucial for understanding plant growth in microgravity environments.

NASA and Boeing Evaluate Return Options

Both agencies are actively analyzing Starliner’s propulsion system data to determine the safest course of action for returning the spacecraft and its crew.

Spacewalk Delay to Address Water Leak

A planned spacewalk scheduled for late June was postponed due to a water leak in the station’s service and cooling umbilical unit. NASA has rescheduled the spacewalk for the end of July to allow for thorough troubleshooting and repairs.

International Crew Maintains Busy Schedule

The international crew members aboard the ISS are diligently performing various tasks, including medical inventory, station maintenance, and lunar material research.

The Starliner mission’s uncertain return highlights the complexities of spaceflight. While the crew remains safe and actively contributing to space station operations, resolving the technical issues remains a top priority for a safe and successful return to Earth.


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