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Boeing’s Starliner astronauts put ‘trust’ in decision makers before return to Earth

NASA astronauts Sunita Williams, left, and Butch Wilmore talk with media from the International Space Station on Wednesday.  (Handout/NASA/TNS)
By Richard Tribou Orlando Sentinel

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams spoke with media for the first time since arriving at the International Space Station on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner last month as they await more tests on the vehicle that suffered thruster and leak issues after launch.

NASA and Boeing teams continue to re-create the issues on the ground before giving the duo the OK to leave the station and return to Earth.

“This is the world of test,” Wilmore said. “This is a tough business that we’re in. Human spaceflight is not easy in any regime, and there have been multiple issues with every spacecraft that has ever been designed.”

The pair launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station back on June 5 arriving to the ISS a day later for what was originally planned to be about an eight-day stay on board. They have now been on board 34 days.

Starliner is making its first crewed flight as part of Boeing’s efforts to join SpaceX and its Crew Dragon spacecraft to help transport astronauts to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Before launch, teams already had been tracking a small helium leak in the propulsion module, and more leaks appeared after launch on the way to the station. That’s also when Starliner suffered thruster issues forcing a delay in docking.

“We did have some failures, as we’re all aware,” Wilmore said. “We had lost (a reaction control system) jet, and then we lost another one. And then you could tell the thrust control, the capability was degraded. And the qualities were not the same. But thankfully, we had practiced and we had gotten certified for manual control. And so we took over manual control.”

Teams were able to get all but one of the thrusters back online, and after Starliner docked, the helium leaks were blocked off, so the spacecraft has been safely attached to the ISS since. NASA and Boeing also signed off on Starliner’s use in the event astronauts needed to make and emergency departure from the ISS.

But the regular departure is on hold while teams continue to pore over data related to the propulsion module problems.

“We’re taking our time on the ground to go through all the data that we have before we decide on the return opportunity,” said NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich in a followup press conference. “We’re taking time to build confidence in the spacecraft to understand the thruster performance – those aft thrusters that failed off during docking, and also totally understand the helium margins before we undock.”

The opportunity to remain safe at the ISS and go over data before the trip home is similar to how SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon visit went with astronauts back in 2020 on the Demo-2 mission.

“What we’re doing is not unusual for a new spacecraft,” he said.

Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program lead Mark Nappi said 30 items were identified for Starliner’s leak and thruster issues, and that more than half had been closed already. The remaining ones he said would be closed by next week.

“We knew there would be some learning from this flight test,” he said. “We’ve learned a great deal. … we’ve made some adjustments and we’ll continue to make more. … we’ll look at all the lessons learned and apply the corrections as necessary.”

Nothing in testing, though, has suggested anything other than bringing the pair back home on Starliner even as ground testing continues.

“We do have a lot of confidence in the thrusters as they are today,” Nappi said. “With the extra time, though, let’s go run this test.”

In the meantime, Williams said she and Wilmore have been busy working alongside the Expedition 71 crew members on the station performing maintenance, including help fixing a broken urine processing system pump, but also lending a hand with the science on board.

“I got to do some gene sequencing, I think (Wilmore) got to do some other science experiments, as well, with a moon microscope that was 3-D printed,” Williams said. ” So we’ve been thoroughly busy up here, integrated right into the crew.”

She said once a week the pair climb into Starliner to talk with the control team to “work through all the new nuances that they’re working very hard on the ground to make sure that we will be able to come home before too long.”

No date yet has been set for that return, although the next SpaceX Crew Dragon flight to the station to replace the one already docked is scheduled for mid-August next month. Stich said that a few days before that would be the back end of the window, but that data optimistically suggests it could happen before the end of July.

Dubbed the Crew Flight Test (CFT), it’s the last step before NASA certifies the vehicle and Boeing can begin regular missions starting with Starliner-1, which is for now on the table still potentially flying as early as February 2025, although delays on the ISS now and more work that may need to be done after the conclusion of CFT could push that first flight later.

But first, NASA and Boeing have to sign off on the Starliner to get Williams and Wilmore home. Because the propulsion module will be jettisoned on the flight back home before re-entry, teams want to get as much data about the thruster issues and helium leaks as possible, which is why they are doing the ground testing and delaying the astronauts’ return.

“You’ve heard, failure is not an option. That’s why we are staying here,” Wilmore said. “We did have some degradation on our thrusters and we know that, and that’s why we’re staying because we’re going to test it. That’s what we do.”

Both Williams and Wilmore attested to their “confidence” that the right decisions will be made.

“We are very close friends with those that are making these decisions, and we trust them,” Wilmore said. “We trust their integrity. We trust their technical acumen. And we trust that the tests that we’re doing are the ones that we need to do to get the right answers to give us the data that we need to come back.”