Boeing Starliner: Two astronauts wait to come home amid spacecraft problems

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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is set to mark its crowning achievement this month: carrying two NASA astronauts on a round trip to the International Space Station, proving the long-delayed and high-budget capsule.

Starliner is halfway to that goal.

But the two veteran astronauts piloting the test flight are now in a temporary position — extending their stay on the space station for a second time while engineers on the ground scramble to learn more about the problems that plagued the first leg of their journey.

Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore reached the space station on June 6 in Starliner. NASA initially predicted their stay would last a week.

But problems the vehicle experienced en route, including helium leaks and thrusters that suddenly stopped working, have raised questions about how the back half of the mission will fare.

Williams and Wilmore will now not return before June 26, NASA announced Tuesday, extending their mission by at least 20 days as engineers race to better understand the spacecraft’s problems while safely tethered to the space station.

Officials have said there is no reason to believe Starliner will not be able to bring astronauts home, although “we want to work through the rest of the data,” Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial group program manager, said Tuesday. News conference.

Meanwhile, Boeing’s vice president and project manager of the Starliner program, Mark Nappi, said Boeing tried to frame the mission as a successful and learning opportunity, even though the Starliner team was stuck with the “unplanned” side of the mission. Put it on Tuesday.

This is not unusual for astronauts to extend their stay unexpectedly On the space station – days, weeks or even months. (NASA also said Starliner could spend up to 45 days in the orbiting lab if needed, according to Stich.)

But the situation creates a moment of uncertainty and embarrassment that joins a long list of similar missteps by the Boeing Starliner program, which is already years behind schedule. It also adds to the chorus of unfavorable news that has followed Boeing as a company for some time.

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Boeing and NASA engineers said they decided to leave the Starliner — and Williams and Willmore — to stay on the station longer than expected, primarily to conduct additional analysis. Helium leaks and propulsion problems occurred in a part of the vehicle that was not intended to return home from space, so mission teams delayed the shuttle’s return as part of a last-ditch effort.

The danger is any time the spacecraft returns home from orbit. This could be the most dangerous stretch of any journey into space.

NASA

NASA’s Boeing crew flight test the Starliner spacecraft docked June 13 in the forward port of the Harmony Module, the International Space Station orbiting more than 262 miles off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.

The journey would require the Starliner to hit Earth’s dense atmosphere while traveling at 22 times the speed of sound. This process bakes the spacecraft’s exterior to approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then, a set of parachutes — redesigned by Boeing and tested in January — should slow the capsule down safely before it reaches terra firma. (The Starliner was the first US-made capsule with a parachute Landing on the ground Rather than splashing down in the ocean. (Boeing hopes this approach will make it easier to recover and refurbish the Starliner after flight.)

Starliner’s journey to this historic crew test mission began in 2014 when NASA tapped both Boeing and SpaceX to develop a spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

At the time, Boeing was seen as a solid aerospace company that would get the job done first while SpaceX was an unpredictable new company.

However, in the last decade, the tides have turned.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft completed its first crewed mission safely in 2020 — an uneventful exit — and the vehicle continues to fly astronauts and paying customers.

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Joel Kowsky/NASA

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launched NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30, 2020, marking the spacecraft’s inaugural crewed flight.

The two astronauts who piloted Crew Dragon’s inaugural flight — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — stayed aboard the space station longer than expected, more than 60 days, the shortest duration expected on such test flights.

But Hurley and Behnken’s stay was extended so the astronauts could help with day-to-day operations on the space station, which was understaffed at the time. This extension is not directly related to software or hardware issues specific to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Spacecraft problems, on the other hand, crippled Boeing’s Starliner program at practically every step. The vehicle has cost the company more than $1 billion in delays, setbacks and additional costs over the years, according to public financial records.

The first Starliner test mission, flown without a crew in late 2019, was marred by mishaps. The vehicle misbehaved in orbit, a sign of software problems, including a coding error that stopped the internal clock by 11 hours.

One second Unmanned flight test in 2022 Additional software issues and problems with some of the vehicle’s thrusters were identified.

Stich, a NASA program manager, pointed out on June 6 News conference Engineers may not have fully resolved those issues by 2022.

“We thought we’d fixed that problem,” Stich said, “but I think we’re missing something fundamental that’s going on inside the thruster.”

Michael Lembeck, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was a consultant to Boeing’s spaceflight division from 2009 to 2014, told CNN it would be difficult to determine whether additional ground tests would have caught the propulsion problems. in hand

But Lembeck emphasized that judging the success of this test mission is not as simple as directly comparing it to the test flight by the inaugural crew of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

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For example, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule — the precursor to Crew Dragon — completed more than a decade of unmanned cargo missions to the space station before Crew Dragon flights took off.

“SpaceX has a head start with the cargo program,” Lembeck said. “I think they have an advantage that Boeing doesn’t have. Boeing has to build a crew vehicle from scratch.

If the Starliner test mission suffers additional setbacks, it could put Boeing in a situation where it will have to rely on its competitor to get Williams and Wilmore home.

“The awkward backup is that a Crew Dragon has to go and retrieve the astronauts,” Lembeck said. The shuttle “can be sent with two crew members and returned with four – that’s the way home.”

Boeing executives have repeatedly tried to make clear that the Starliner program operates independently of other divisions of the company — including the commercial airline division, which has been at the center of scandals for years.

“Humans fly in this vehicle. We always take it very seriously,” Nubby once said Message description Before the Starliner took off in April.

Nappi declared that the Starliner crew was operating at “peak efficiency” at the time and was “looking forward to executing a truly safe mission.”

Asked about that assertion Tuesday, NASA Administrator Stich said Boeing and NASA officials always expected to find additional problems during the test flight.

At one point Williams mentioned that expectation Pre-flight news conference“We’re always finding stuff, and we’re going to keep finding stuff.

“When we fly in a spaceship, everything is not perfect. …We feel very safe and comfortable with how this spacecraft flies, and we have backup procedures in place in case they are needed,” Williams said.

However, Sticht acknowledged on Tuesday that Boeing and NASA could have prevented some of the hangups the Starliner faced: “Maybe we could have done different tests on the ground to characterize some of the (propulsion problems) ahead of time,” he said.

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