NASA astronauts say they are confident Boeing Starliner can get them home
Sciences et technologies

NASA astronauts say they are confident Boeing Starliner can get them home

The first two astronauts to fly in Boeing’s Starliner capsule said Wednesday from the International Space Station that they are confident in the spacecraft’s ability to get them home once the company and NASA resolve engine problems that kept them in space much longer than expected.

“I have a feeling this ship will get us home without any problems,” NASA astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams said during the test crew’s first press conference since docking with the ISS more than a month ago.

Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, veteran NASA astronauts and former U.S. Navy test pilots, launched aboard Starliner from Florida on June 5 and docked with the ISS the next day, where they were initially expected to spend about eight days.

Several issues with Starliner’s propulsion system have extended their mission indefinitely. Five of Starliner’s 28 thrusters failed en route to the station, a thruster valve failed to close properly, and five helium leaks, used to pressurize the thrusters, were noted.

“We are absolutely confident,” Mr. Wilmore told reporters. “That mantra you’ve heard: failure is not an option.

“And that’s why we’re staying, because we’re going to test it. That’s what we’re doing,” Wilmore added, acknowledging that the U.S. space agency and Boeing’s ongoing investigation into engine testing on Earth is key to their successful return.

The current test mission is the final step for Boeing before the spacecraft can be certified by NASA for regular astronaut flights and become the second U.S. orbital capsule alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has dominated the emerging human spaceflight market due to delays in the development of Starliner.

TESTS IN NEW MEXICO AND ALABAMA

To understand why some boosters overheated and stopped working during Starliner’s flight to the ISS, NASA officials and Boeing engineers began testing identical boosters at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to try to reproduce the incidents.

Meanwhile, an investigation at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama is aimed at determining why a seal in Starliner’s propulsion system caused the helium to leak.

Willmore and Williams’ return to Earth aboard Starliner depends on the results of engine tests, NASA officials said.

Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew chief, told reporters Wednesday that “we’re not in a rush” to test and that the results of the engine test in New Mexico “aren’t quite what we were hoping for.”

Mr Stich said he hoped the tests would be completed by this weekend. Mr Stich had previously said the tests could last “several weeks”, after which NASA would conduct a detailed analysis of the data to inform the agency’s decision to allow Starliner to carry the astronauts home.

Also docked at the space station is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which carried four astronauts to the ISS in March, and a Russian Soyuz capsule, which carried three more in September. Mr Stich acknowledged that at least one of those vehicles could get Wilmore and Williams home.

“We have a little more time to look at the data and decide whether to change the return plan,” Stich said. “But the first option today is to get Butch and Suni back on board Starliner. Right now, we don’t see any reason why that can’t happen.

Starliner is allowed to remain docked to the ISS for 45 days, which is July 21, or up to 90 days using various backup systems and depending on the health of its lithium-ion batteries, which has raised concerns in the past.

While NASA and Boeing have said Starliner is capable of returning astronauts to Earth in the event of an emergency on the ISS, the capsule is not cleared to return home under normal, non-emergency circumstances until the problems associated with its engines have been resolved or at least better understood.

Last month, a Russian satellite broke up into about 180 pieces of debris near the space station’s orbit, forcing astronauts to return to their various docked spacecraft, including Wilmore and Williams, who boarded Starliner to prepare for a potential leak. Boeing cited the event as an example of Starliner’s ability to return home in an emergency.

Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner manager, told reporters that such an emergency return scenario would simply involve Starliner undocking from the station and returning the crew safely to Earth, despite questions about the engines.

“I’m confident that if we had a problem with the International Space Station, we could get into our spacecraft, undock, talk to our crew and figure out the best way to get home,” Mr Williams said.

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