Why Boeing’s Starliner isn’t ready to return to Earth yet: NPR

The Starliner spacecraft docked with the International Space Station and orbited 262 miles off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast on June 13. NASA says more testing is needed before the Starliner returns to Earth.

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When astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams took off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on June 5, they thought they’d be back in time for the Juneteenth holiday.

Both were test-driving Boeing’s new space shuttle called the Starliner. All they have to do is put it through its paces, come up short with the International Space Station (ISS), and come home. The entire task will last one week.

Instead, a series of leaks and malfunctions delayed both NASA’s return indefinitely.

Whatever you do, don’t tell them they’re stuck.

“We’re not stuck on the ISS,” the vice president of Boeing’s business group told reporters on June 28. Suni and Butch return to Earth.

Here’s what’s going on with Boeing’s new spacecraft.

NASA's Boeing Crew Flight Test astronauts (from top) Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams as seen aboard the International Space Station.  The astronauts' return to Earth was delayed while NASA conducted additional tests on the Starliner's thrusters.

NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are seen aboard the International Space Station. The astronauts’ return to Earth was delayed while NASA conducted additional tests on the Starliner’s thrusters.

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Even before this release, there were issues

Starliner’s development was uneventful. During its first test flight in 2019, it was unmanned and failed to achieve the expected orbit. The problem was later traced to an internal clock being mis-set – causing the Starliner’s thrusters to fire at the wrong time.

Starliner never made it to the ISS on that mission, and NASA needed a second test flight without astronauts. When it restarted in 2022, two thrusters on the Starliner failed to fire as expected. It successfully transitioned to backup thrusters and docked to the space station.

The astronauts were finally supposed to launch last year, but Boeing found two more problems with the spacecraft: problems with the parachute system that would allow them to float back to Earth and the tape used to hold the wiring in place posed a fire risk. Fixed both issues, pushing the release back to this spring.

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Finally, on May 6, Williams and Wilmore were attached, when more problems appeared—a shut-off valve in the rocket launching the Starliner had to be replaced, and mission engineers discovered a helium leak in the Starliner.

Helium gas is used to pressurize the Starliner’s propulsion system, and it took NASA several weeks to determine that the leaks were not severe enough to release the helium during the voyage.

Boeing's Starliner capsule finally lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on June 5 atop an Atlas V rocket.  The launch came after years of delays and setbacks.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule finally lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on June 5 atop an Atlas V rocket. The launch came after years of delays and setbacks.

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Thruster cluster leads to flutter

Once all the systems were finally “go”, the launch of the Starliner went off without a hitch. On June 5, Williams and Wilmore traveled into orbit.

But when they approached the ISS, new problems arose. Five of the 28 “reaction control thrusters” in the Starliner’s service module shut down unexpectedly, and the shuttle was parked outside the docking port while engineers made some adjustments.

Eventually, the spacecraft successfully docked with the space station, and four of the five thrusters were brought back online. But NASA later found four additional helium leaks in different parts of the spacecraft, bringing the total to five.

NASA now says that Williams and Willmore will need to further test and evaluate these issues before returning to Earth. Space agency engineers suspect faulty seals may be behind the helium leaks, which they think pose little risk. But reducing motivational issues is difficult.

Starting this week, NASA says it will conduct extensive tests of the Starliner thruster at the White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, NM. issues, and make sure the thrusters can be safely used to bring Williams and Wilmore home.

“Once that test is complete, we’ll look at the plan for landing,” Steve Stich, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, told reporters. The whole process can take several weeks, he says.

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Don’t say you’re stuck

Even before the recent press conference, media outlets were speculating that Williams and Wilmore might be stuck at the station. This is a claim for Boeing, in particular.

“Astronauts No Stranded on the ISS,” read the first line of the company’s statement on the matter, obtained by NPR on June 26.

As the Starliner prepares to dock with the International Space Station, several thrusters fail to fire as expected.

As the Starliner prepares to dock with the International Space Station, several thrusters fail to fire as expected.

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“They’re not stuck in space. Astronauts are comfortably housed on the International Space Station,” agrees Laura Forsick, executive director of the space consultancy Astrolytics.

According to Stich, the Starliner is designed to stay in space for up to 210 days. The test flight was originally supposed to last only 45 days because of the spacecraft’s battery life, but Stich says the space station recharges the batteries as designed, and NASA wants to extend that range.

In a real pinch, NASA could use a SpaceX Dragon capsule or a Russian Soyuz capsule to bring them both home, but Forsyk doubts that would be necessary.

“I don’t see it as critical or life-threatening,” Forczyk says. “I think they’re being extra cautious as they should be because this vehicle didn’t run as planned.”

Forczyk notes that the problems with the helium system and thrusters are located in the Starliner’s service module, a section of the shuttle that is removed before landing. For that reason, he says, engineers may want to keep the Starliner on the station longer so they can gather more data from the module before it burns up during re-entry.

In further evidence of NASA’s faith in Starliner, Williams and Wilmore took refuge inside the spacecraft last week after a Russian satellite broke up, creating orbital debris that could threaten the station.

“Butch and Suni boarded the shuttle, powered up the vehicle, closed the hatch, and prepared for an emergency disconnect and landing,” says Stich.

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Starliner’s future may be in limbo

In 2014, Boeing received a $4.2 billion contract from NASA to develop the Starliner. The spacecraft should regularly send astronauts to the International Space Station within a decade. Those planes are now years behind schedule, and the delays have cost Boeing at least $1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, rival company SpaceX, awarded just $2.6 billion, successfully flew humans in 2020 and has completed eight routine crewed missions for NASA to the space station.

Bank of America analyst Ron Epstein said the problems are part of a larger problem at the space agency. “I don’t think you can look at it in isolation,” he says.

Boeing has also seen problems with its 737 Max, including a door that flew off one plane earlier this year, and delays in delivering two 747s to use as the president’s Air Force One.

Starliner will land somewhere in the western United States in 2022, just as it did during an unmanned flight test (pictured).

The Starliner will eventually land somewhere in the western United States, just as it did during an unmanned flight test in 2022.

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At its root, Epstein says the problems stemmed from a departure from “hardcore engineering” in the company’s management.

“You’ve had management teams for years that were more focused on shareholder returns than the core engineering business of the company,” he says.

The Starliner’s first routine flight to carry astronauts is now scheduled for February 2025, but it’s unclear whether NASA will certify the new spacecraft in time. Even if it does, it will only conduct a handful of flights before NASA retires the space station in 2030.

All things considered, Epstein said, if NASA needs extensive modifications and revisions to the Starliner, Boeing may decide to pull out of the program altogether.

“Boeing management is clear to the investment community that I think Starliner and certain aspects of space are not central to them,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the company doesn’t want to continue.”

But Boeing’s Nappi says the company is fully committed to the Starliner. “The plain and simple answer to the question is: ‘No, we’re not going to back down,'” he says. “It’s our job.”

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