Space

Boeing Starliner’s Return Delayed, Yet Again

Starliner in space.
Starliner in space. Photo by NASA


The hits just keep on coming for Boeing Starliner’s first crewed test flight.

That’s right, despite having confidently announced plans for astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to return from their sojourn aboard the International Space Station this Wednesday, now they won’t be touching down in White Sands, New Mexico until next month, sometime.

Why? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly to those who’ve been watching all this play out so far, it’s because NASA officials are concerned about the vehicle’s ongoing helium leaks and the thruster failures that occurred during the June 5 launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

"We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process," Steve Stich, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager, stated. "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."

Stich also noted that thanks to how much Starliner’s mission has been extended — Williams and Wilmore were originally supposed to go through re-entry about a week after they arrived at ISS — NASA officials are going to conduct a more extensive review of the spacecraft before the astronauts use it to come back to Earth.

He tried to make this sound like standard procedure, stating that “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."

However, the reality is that SpaceX’s first crewed 2020 Dragon test flight didn’t have anywhere near the number of problems that have beset Starliner’s first crewed run, as we’ve noted before.

In fact, it’s a stretch to claim that Boeing and SpaceX’s respective commercial crew projects have much in common at all these days. Although NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract in 2014 to build a commercial vehicle to tote astronauts to and from space, the company is running years behind schedule and millions over budget.

Its 2019 uncrewed test flight went so badly NASA officials demanded a follow-up in 2022 before attempting a crewed flight. The crewed flight was slated for 2023 but ended up delayed until this summer after it was discovered that Boeing had used flammable electrical tape in the crew capsule, a big mistake considering that it has to shoot through the atmosphere like a comet to return to Earth. Then the first two launch attempts conducted in May had to be scrubbed as more malfunctions were discovered, including the first “small helium leak.” The spacecraft left with just one leak but had sprung five helium leaks by the time it docked with ISS.

Meanwhile, SpaceX got its first crewed flight test done four years ago and will likely pull off more crewed launches before Boeing completes its six contracted flights, as we’ve noted before.

In the case of this latest delay, for obvious reasons engineers want to make sure they’ve worked out contingency plans in case any other issues pop up once the vehicle undocks from the ISS, according to NASA.

On top of that, they are trying to make sure they understand what has caused all of the helium leaks and the thruster malfunctions in the service module while they still can. Attached to the crew module, the service module will be jettisoned prior to re-entry, so NASA and Boeing engineers won’t be able to get their hands on the hardware once Starliner heads back home.

In the meantime, Wilmore, the mission commander, and Williams, the mission pilot, are able to remain aboard the ISS for up to 45 days if need be. The pair are also cleared to board the spacecraft, which they’ve dubbed “Calypso,” undock and return home if any issues crop up at the space station that requires them to make a fast exit. When the first re-entry delay was announced earlier this month, Stich stated that there were no indications that the duo will be unable to return home via Starliner, and that is still NASA’s official stance.

But it’s still unclear when they will actually be returning home, other than the fact that it won’t be until after astronauts have conducted two scheduled ISS spacewalks on July 2.
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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