Two US Astronauts Stranded in Space Aboard Boeing Starliner Capsule

Two US Astronauts Stranded in Space Aboard Boeing Starliner Capsule

**Two US Astronauts Stranded in Space Aboard Boeing Starliner Capsule**

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, carrying two NASA astronauts, has encountered significant technical issues, leaving the astronauts stranded in space. The mission, initially planned as an eight-day journey, has now extended to nearly a month as engineers work to resolve the problems. Astronauts Sunita “Suni” Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore remain aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as the situation unfolds.

The Starliner launched on June 5 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station after two previous unsuccessful attempts. The mission, already a year behind schedule and $1.5 billion over budget, faced issues even before liftoff, including problems with reaction control thrusters and helium leaks. Despite these challenges, the spacecraft successfully docked with the ISS.

However, the return journey has been delayed multiple times due to ongoing technical difficulties. A Boeing spokesperson stated that the return of the Starliner Crew Flight Test has been adjusted to occur after two planned spacewalks on June 24 and July 2. Currently, there is no set date for the astronauts’ return, and opportunities will be evaluated after the spacewalks.

The spokesperson also emphasized that the crew is not in immediate danger and has sufficient supplies. The ISS schedule is relatively open through mid-August, providing some flexibility for the mission’s resolution.

The Starliner mission has faced numerous setbacks, including helium leaks and thruster malfunctions. While most of the thruster issues have been resolved, with only one out of 27 thrusters currently offline, the helium leaks remain a concern. NASA and Boeing officials insist that the astronauts are not stranded and that the technical difficulties do not pose a threat to the mission.

NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Steve Stich, explained that the spacecraft requires seven hours of free-flight time to perform a normal end-of-mission procedure. The Starliner currently has enough helium left in its tanks to support 70 hours of free-flight activity following undocking. Stich assured that the spacecraft is cleared to undock and return to Earth if an emergency arises.

If the Starliner cannot safely return to Earth, Williams and Wilmore may have to hitch a ride with the crew on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is also docked at the ISS. This backup plan underscores the importance of having multiple options for astronaut transportation.

Boeing’s latest crisis adds to a series of public relations challenges the company has faced, particularly with its commercial aircraft division. Despite these issues, NASA administrator Bill Nelson highlighted the significance of the Starliner mission, noting that it is only the sixth inaugural journey of a crewed spacecraft in US history.

The mission’s troubles began during the 25-hour flight to the ISS when engineers discovered five separate helium leaks in the spacecraft’s thruster system. To address these faults, NASA has extended the astronauts’ stay on the ISS to allow engineers more time to troubleshoot. Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, acknowledged that the helium system is not performing as designed and requires further investigation.

The return module of the Starliner is currently docked to the ISS’s Harmony module as engineers assess the spacecraft’s vital hardware issues. While some of the thruster problems have been partially resolved, the exact causes remain unknown. The Harmony module’s limited fuel means the Starliner can only stay docked for 45 days, narrowing the window for a safe return flight.

The Starliner program, part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has faced years of delays and setbacks. The first uncrewed test flight in 2019 was marred by a software fault that placed the spacecraft in the wrong orbit. A second attempt was delayed by issues with a fuel valve. Subsequent reviews revealed problems with the capsule’s parachutes and flammable tape.

Despite these challenges, Boeing and NASA remain committed to the mission. The current situation, while embarrassing, is not unprecedented. Astronauts often extend their stays on the ISS due to various factors, including technical issues and mission requirements.

Boeing and NASA engineers are using this extended mission to conduct additional analysis and learn from the spacecraft’s performance. The helium leaks and thruster issues occurred in a part of the vehicle not intended to survive the trip home, making this an opportunity to gather valuable data.

The return journey will be perilous, requiring the Starliner to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at over 22 times the speed of sound. The spacecraft’s exterior will endure temperatures of approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A set of parachutes, recently redesigned and tested, will then slow the capsule for a safe landing on the ground.

The Starliner program began in 2014 when NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS. While SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has successfully completed multiple crewed missions since 2020, Boeing’s Starliner has faced numerous challenges.

The current mission is Boeing’s third attempt to take a crew to the ISS. Previous attempts were thwarted by technical issues, including a vibrating oxygen valve and a computer glitch. Despite these setbacks, Boeing remains optimistic about the mission’s outcome.

NASA and Boeing officials continue to monitor the situation closely, prioritizing the safety of the astronauts. While the mission has not gone as planned, it provides an opportunity to address and resolve the spacecraft’s issues, ultimately contributing to the advancement of human spaceflight.

Source: The Guardian, CNN

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