Technical Failures Have Left The Starliner Crew ‘Not Stranded’ On The ISS Indefinitely

NASA’s recent mission involving Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has raised concerns about the safety and future of space travel.

Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams, the astronauts on Boeing’s Starliner, find themselves in a strange situation. NASA has often stated that they are “not stranded,” but the ambiguity caused controversy.

On June 5, 2024, the first crewed Starliner mission took off following 14 years of delays due to cost overruns and other flying incidents. An early problem for the mission was a helium leak in the thruster system, which complicated plans for a week-long docking with the International Space Station. NASA and Boeing chose to move forward with the launch despite these reservations.

Five thrusters had leaks reported shortly after docking, four of which failed during manoeuvres due to an oxygen valve that became jammed. The astronauts are kept in a holding pattern, engineers identify and fix the issues, and Starliner stays docked. “I want to make it very clear that Butch and Sunny are not stranded in space,” a NASA spokesman stated.

NASA is testing the propulsion system heaters, the operating software, and the helium pressurisation system by firing Starliner’s thrusters while stationed. The robotic arm of the International Space Station (ISS) is also being used to check the spacecraft for damage. As this is going on, engineers are using a replica set of thrusters at White Sands Testing Ground in New Mexico to test them using the same flight profile as Starliner to determine the underlying causes.

“After testing and analysis, we’ll plan for landing,” said a NASA spokesman, adding that no specific date has been set for the spacecraft’s return to Earth. The ISS is recharging Starliner’s batteries, which might give them an additional 45 days of life beyond their intended 45 days. NASA also mentioned that Starliner flights could last up to 210 days once fully operational.

Journalists have been worried by the lack of transparency and updates regarding the mission’s status. The spacecraft’s and astronauts’ endurance is being tested, and weeks of testing and evaluation may lie ahead.

There are precedents for this kind of situation. A US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts returned to Earth in September 2023 after more than a year on the International Space Station (ISS) due to space debris damaging their Soyuz spacecraft. Because of this incident, they couldn’t return until they could arrange another spaceship.

If Starliner is deemed unsuitable for a safe return, alternative plans may involve a Russian Soyuz or a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. A Soyuz mission would be a significant international embarrassment for the US while relying on SpaceX would be a setback for Boeing. Boeing has mentioned a “parallel path” for the next Starliner flight in February 2025, though this depends on receiving the necessary certifications.

Although NASA is still optimistic, the Starliner mission’s future is uncertain, reflecting the difficulties and unanticipated events associated with space travel.

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