Explained: Why Boeing Starliner Spacecraft Carrying Astronauts Sunita Williams & Butch Wilmore To ISS Has Not Yet Returned To Earth

Explained: Why Boeing Starliner Spacecraft Carrying Astronauts Sunita Williams & Butch Wilmore To ISS Has Not Yet Returned To Earth

Here’s a breakdown of the situation, the challenges faced and what lies ahead for Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore, and the mission.

Vishakha SonawaneUpdated: Friday, June 28, 2024, 03:42 PM IST
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Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams | X/@Commercial_Crew

Boeing Starliner spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station (ISS) is facing delay in return to Earth. Originally scheduled to spend eight days, the astronauts arrived at the ISS on June 6. However, 20 days later, NASA and Boeing are still working on plans to bring Williams and Wilmore back to Earth and their return has been indefinitely delayed due to technical issues with the Boeing Starliner. Here’s a breakdown of the situation, the challenges faced and what lies ahead for Williams and Wilmore, and the mission.

What Is The Mission?

The mission involving the Boeing Starliner was designed to demonstrate the spacecraft's ability to safely transport astronauts to and from the ISS. Boeing, the aerospace giant, has considered this mission crucial as it aims to join Elon Musk's SpaceX in providing regular crew transportation services for NASA, as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program.

On June 21, Steve Stich, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program that the spacecraft reported "small helium system leaks and thruster performance".

“We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process,” Stich said. “We are letting the data drive our decision making relative to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking. Additionally, given the duration of the mission, it is appropriate for us to complete an agency-level review, similar to what was done ahead of the NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 return after two months on orbit, to document the agency’s formal acceptance on proceeding as planned.”

Some of the technical problems of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft are:

Helium Leaks: Multiple small helium leaks were detected in the spacecraft’s service module. Helium is crucial for maintaining structural integrity and manoeuverability of the spacecraft.

Thruster Issues: Five of the spacecraft's thrusters malfunctioned, affecting the propulsion system. Thrusters are vital for docking and maneuvering in space.

Valve Problems: There were issues with a valve responsible for regulating the flow of oxidizers, essential for propulsion.

These issues were significant enough to delay the spacecraft’s return to Earth originally scheduled for June 13, then moved to June 26, and further delayed to an undetermined date in July.

What Are The Steps Taken To Fix The Issues?

NASA and Boeing engineers are working to resolve these challenges:

- They are reviewing the spacecraft’s propulsion system data.

- They have been conducting tests on the thrusters while the spacecraft is docked at the ISS.

- Simulators on the ground are being used to explore different scenarios to identify and fix the issues.

Are Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore Safe?

Yes, Williams and Wilmore are safe and not stranded, according to NASA. The ISS has ample supplies and the astronauts can remain docked for up to 45 days. If necessary, they can return to Earth using SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which is also currently attached to the ISS.

NASA has maintained that there is no immediate urgency to bring the astronauts back home, and the helium leaks do not pose a risk to their return.

What’s Next For The Starliner Mission?

The success of the Starliner programme is crucial for Boeing, especially after facing significant setbacks, including an expensive failed test flight in 2019. After resolving the current issues, the Boeing Starliner will need to undergo a thorough certification process before being used for regular crew rotation missions. This will involve:

- Flying a full crew of four astronauts for extended stays on the ISS.

- Ensuring that all systems are functioning correctly and safely.

Why Makes The Mission Important?

The mission is significant for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that aims to establish reliable and cost-effective access to the ISS. Having two reliable systems (SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner) for transporting astronauts provides a backup in case one system encounters issues.

This mission is also vital for Boeing's financial recovery and future profitability in the space sector, as it aims to secure post-certification missions that are essential for the company's financial health.

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