Boeing Starliner’s Return Delayed, Indefinitely

Starliner docked.
Starliner docked. Photo by NASA

Boeing’s Starliner space capsule has already been docked at the International Space Station for three weeks while engineers have worked to analyze its ongoing helium leaks and malfunctioning thrusters.

Now the commercial crew vehicle’s return date — and that of the two veteran astronauts slated to come back with it for its first crewed test flight — has been put on “indefinite hold” while the federal space agency runs more tests on Starliner’s malfunctioning thrusters and helium leaks.

However, NASA officials insist that Butch Wilmore, the mission commander, and Suni Williams, the mission pilot, are absolutely able to clamber aboard “Calypso” (as they’ve dubbed this Boeing Starliner) and head back to Earth at any time – if there was an emergency and they had to.

“Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager insisted after the latest delay was announced. “Their spacecraft is working well, and they're enjoying their time on the space station."

So, officially, they aren’t stuck, but the reality is that Williams and Wilmore won’t be returning home until sometime later this month, at the earliest.

At this point, it’s doubtful that they, or anyone else at NASA, is surprised by this turn of events. Boeing’s Starliner has been plagued with delays, budget overruns and malfunctions since the aerospace behemoth was awarded one of NASA’s two commercial crew vehicle contracts back in 2014, as we’ve previously reported. The project is years behind schedule, millions over budget, and even when Starliner rocketed off its launchpad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on June 5, it did so having had to scrub two previous attempts and toting a helium leak into orbit.

The one leak, which Boeing and NASA engineers had reviewed and concluded wouldn’t be an issue for the test flight, had become five leaks by the time the vehicle docked with the ISS. (The other leaks started when Starliner fired its jets during the actual docking process.) Starliner has 10 times the amount of helium required for the vehicle to undock from the space station and go through re-entry, according to Stich, but engineers will continue to analyze the leaks to make sure there are no surprises when the valves are re-pressurized as Williams and Wilmore prepare to head back home.

And then there are the thrusters. When Starliner approached the ISS on June 6, five of its thrusters, which are used to help pilot the spacecraft, didn’t operate correctly. Although four of them have been subsequently, and successfully, test fired in the weeks since then, engineers are trying to understand what caused the failures in the first place before Williams and Wilmore clamber back into the vehicle.

Officially, the reasoning for working this out now is simply that the service module that houses both the thrusters and the helium tanks will be jettisoned and left to burn off during re-entry. However, it’s worth noting that NASA and Boeing engineers are really going the extra mile to understand what went wrong with those thrusters.

On Tuesday, engineers at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico started testing an identical thruster to try and understand why and how those aboard Starliner malfunctioned. These ground tests are expected to run for the next couple of weeks, at least, while they work to sort out what caused the problem, which could be related to the thrusters going through hotter-than-expected temperatures while firing, a software glitch or who knows what else.

Whatever the cause is, NASA and Boeing folks are opting to keep Wilmore and Williams in orbit until both the thrusters and the helium leaks have been fully tested, analyzed and sorted out. "We're not going to target a specific date until we get that testing completed,” Stich said.

On top of that, Starliner won’t be going through re-entry until NASA has conducted an agency-level review, or essentially a review of the undocking and re-entry plan that takes all of the most recent findings and analyses into consideration and gets full agency approval.

Meanwhile, Boeing’s Starliner program manager Mark Nappi, and everyone else at the beleaguered, making-headlines-for-all-the-wrong-reasons company, is just wishing everyone would stop claiming that the astronauts are stranded. Sure, they are now likely to be in orbit weeks longer than originally planned, but an extended space station stay is part of what astronauts do these days.

And when it comes to Starliner itself, as of last week we know that NASA folks really do believe it’s safe. When space trash from a defunct Russian satellite was at risk of coming into the path of the ISS, the nine crew members were ordered to shelter-in-place, and Wilmore and Williams sheltered in Starliner.

So, well, there’s that.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray