Astronauts confident Boeing space capsule can return them safely to Earth, despite setbacks

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Two astronauts who should have returned to Earth weeks ago said Wednesday they were confident Boeing’s space capsule could bring them back safely, despite the malfunctions.

NASA test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams spear aboard Boeing’s new Starliner capsule early last month, the first people to fly it. Helium leaks and thruster failures nearly derailed their arrival to the International Space Station, and kept them there much longer than expected.

In their first press conference from orbit, they said they planned to return once the thruster tests were complete here on Earth. They said they weren’t complaining about the extra time in orbit and were excited to help the station’s crew.

“I have a feeling the spacecraft will get us home, no problem,” Williams told reporters.

The test flight was to last eight days and end on June 14.

This week, NASA and Boeing are attempting to replicate the Starliner’s thruster problems on a brand new unit at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, one of the premier landing sites in the western desert of the United States. The problem is with the propulsion system, which is used to maneuver the spacecraft.

Five thrusters failed as the capsule approached the space station on June 6, a day after liftoff. Four have since been reactivated. Wilmore said there should be enough working thrusters for him and Williams to get out of orbit. There are also larger engines that could take over, if needed.

“That mantra you’ve heard, failure is not an option, that’s why we’re here now,” Wilmore said. “We’re confident that the testing we’re doing is the testing we need to get the right answers, to give us the data we need to come back.”

Boeing and NASA say the ground tests are critical to determining what may have happened because that part of the capsule — the service module — is discarded before landing. The leaks are also in that disposable section.

A decade ago, NASA ordered the Starliner and SpaceX Dragon capsules for astronaut flights to and from the space station, paying each company billions of dollars. SpaceX’s first taxi flight with astronauts took place in 2020. Boeing’s first crew flight was repeatedly delayed due to software and other issues.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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