Boeing Starliner astronaut says the spacecraft is ‘truly amazing’ despite malfunctions and delays

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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and its crew have been in space for more than a month — much longer than the weeklong stay initially expected.

The vehicle has suffered technical issues that have delayed its return indefinitely, and there’s still no return date on the horizon.

But the two astronauts piloting this historic test mission mostly spoke favorably about the vehicle that carried them to the International Space Station, marking the inaugural crewed flight of the Boeing-built spacecraft.

“Launch was spectacular. I mean, truly amazing,” Butch Wilmore, one of two NASA astronauts helming this mission, said in a Wednesday news briefing. “And then we got into our operational capabilities checks, and the spacecraft performed unbelievably well.”

Wilmore praised the vehicle’s precision control. But he also said that when several thrusters unexpectedly failed as the Starliner approached its docking port at the International Space Station, he felt the thrust was “degraded.”

“But thankfully, we had practiced and we had gotten certified for manual control, and so we took over manual control for over an hour,” Wilmore added.

In addition to those thruster issues, Starliner experienced helium leaks on the first leg of the trip. As of Wednesday morning, NASA and Boeing officials had not yet revealed whether they’ve determined the root cause of those problems.

To learn more about the thruster issues, the Starliner team is conducting tests on the ground in New Mexico.

Starliner’s inaugural crewed mission took flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 5, ending years of delays that have surrounded the vehicle as it’s endured development setbacks, cost overruns and even an uncrewed test mission that suffered a mission-ending error and had to be flown again.

NASA and Boeing have said that the fresh wave of issues affecting this flight should not prevent the spacecraft from bringing its crew — astronauts Sunita Williams and Wilmore — safely home from space. Yet they have not named an expected time frame for Williams and Wilmore’s return while insisting the crew is not “stuck.”

“I feel confident that, if we had to, if there was a problem with the International Space Station, we would get in (the Starliner spacecraft) and we could undock, talk to our team, and figure out the best way to come home,” Williams said.

The reason that teams on the ground say they want to keep the Starliner safely attached to the International Space Station is so that they can continue working to find out what caused the thruster issues and helium leaks. Both problems are on a portion of the Starliner that is not supposed to survive reentry back to Earth, leaving ground teams with few options to continue gathering data from the component after Williams and Wilmore return home.

“This is a test flight — we were expecting to find some things,” Williams added, echoing comments she made before liftoff. “We are finding stuff, and we’re correcting it and making changes, making updates with our control team.”

Removal of suitcases

Just ahead of liftoff in June, NASA reorganized the cargo on board Starliner, removing two suitcases for Williams and Wilmore and replacing them with a 150-pound (68-kilogram) pump needed to get the space station bathroom working as intended.

In space, every bit of liquid is important, and astronauts have long used a water processing system to convert urine into drinking water. But in May, a piece of that conversion system broke.

The pump’s failure “put us in a position where we’d have to store an awful lot of urine,” said Dana Weigel, manager for NASA’s International Space Station Program, before the flight. She added that the urine was being stored in containers on board the station.

That’s why NASA had to scramble to get a replacement part on the next flight to the space station, opting to send it with Williams and Wilmore at the expense of some of their more personal comforts.

The two suitcases that were removed held clothes and toiletries — including shampoo and soaps — that Wilmore and Williams selected.

Weigel added that spare clothes and toiletries were already on the station for Williams and Wilmore to use.

Test flights: SpaceX’s vs. Boeing’s

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is designed to compete with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which had its first crewed test mission, called Demo-2, in 2020 that appeared to go off without a hitch.

Both Starliner and Crew Dragon are part of the same NASA program, called Commercial Crew.

Comparing the two vehicles, however, is not always straightforward. SpaceX designed its cargo Dragon spacecraft years before its Crew Dragon capsule, while Boeing somewhat started from scratch with Starliner.

But SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission looked far different from Starliner’s debut crewed flight.

During the SpaceX’s Demo-2, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley gave at least two public tours of their spacecraft while en route to the space station, and they held a news conference from the space station on June 1, 2020 — the day after docking.

Hurley and Behnken already knew their mission would likely last months. NASA said before takeoff that the agency wanted to keep the space station fully staffed, waiting to bring Behnken and Hurley home until the next crew mission was ready to fly. Ultimately, SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission lasted 64 days — far short of the advertised maximum length of the trip, 110 days.

Williams and Wilmore, on the other hand, are approaching their 36th day in space for a mission that officials initially billed as a roughly weeklong trip.

What’s more, the astronauts are about 10 days short of the 45-day maximum duration that NASA initially laid out, but officials are now considering extending that maximum to at least 90 days.

Williams said Wednesday that she and Wilmore have joined the astronauts already on board the station to help with regular tasks.

“We’ve been doing science for them, maintenance, some major maintenance that it’s been waiting for a little while, like stuff that’s been on the books for a little bit,” Williams said.

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