Explained – How Boeing’s Starliner Can Bring Astronauts Back to Earth

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Problems with Boeing’s Starliner capsule, still docked with the International Space Station (ISS), have upended initial plans to return its two astronauts to Earth, as last-minute fixes and tests are made bring out a crucial mission for the future of Boeing’s space division.

NASA has rescheduled the planned return three times and now has no date set. Since its June 5 liftoff, the capsule has had five helium leaks, five maneuvering thrusters failed and a thruster valve did not close completely, prompting the crew into space and mission managers in Houston to spend more time than expected searching for mid-mission fixes.

Here’s an explanation of the potential paths forward for Starliner and its veteran NASA astronauts, Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams.


Starliner can remain docked with the ISS for up to 45 days, according to comments from NASA business team leader Steve Stich to reporters. But if absolutely necessary, such as if other problems arise that mission managers cannot resolve in time, it could remain docked for up to 72 days, relying on various backup systems, according to a person familiar with flight planning.

Internally at NASA, the latest expected return date for Starliner is July 6, according to this source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Such a return date would mean that the mission, initially planned for eight days, would instead last a month.

The Starliner’s consumable propulsion system is part of the craft’s “service module”. Current problems focus on this system, which is necessary to move the capsule away from the ISS and position it for diving into Earth’s atmosphere. Many Starliner thrusters overheated during firing, and leaks of helium — used to pressurize the thrusters — appear to be linked to the frequency with which they are used, according to Stich.

Stich said recent tests of firing the thrusters while the Starliner remains docked have given mission teams confidence of a safe return, although tests and reviews are ongoing. The mission management team, made up of personnel from NASA and Boeing, reviews data on propulsion problems, runs simulations in Houston and considers how to resolve them, such as by updating software or changing the way the equipment is used.

Once NASA officials give the team the go-ahead for a return, Starliner’s thrusters would be used to detach the capsule from the ISS and begin a roughly six-hour return journey, gradually tightening its orbit before plunging into the Earth’s atmosphere for an assisted landing. by parachutes and airbags, in one of several potential locations in the southwest United States.

It is the first Starliner mission to orbit carrying astronauts – the final test needed before NASA can certify it as the US space agency’s second trip to the ISS. He would join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has dominated the government and nascent private markets for human spaceflight amid Starliner’s years-long delays.


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