Starliner faces an indefinite wait in space while NASA investigates its errors

In an update was released late Friday night, NASA said it was “adjusting” the date Starliner The spacecraft returned to Earth from June 26 to an unknown time in July.

The announcement follows two days of marathon meetings to review the readiness of the spacecraft, which was developed by Boeing, to bring NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to Earth. According to sources, these meetings were attended by senior agency leaders, including deputy administrator Jim Free.

This “crewed flight test,” launched on June 5 atop an Atlas V rocket, was originally scheduled to be undocked and return to Earth on June 14. However , as NASA and Boeing engineers studied data from problematic flight of the vehicle to the International Space Station, they gave up some chance of return.

On Friday night, they did so again, citing the need to spend more time reviewing the data.

“Using our time”

“We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team procedures,” said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. in a NASA update. “We are letting data drive decision making regarding the management of small helium system leaks and thruster performance that we observed during rendezvous and docking .”

Just a few days ago, on Tuesday, NASA and Boeing officials set a return date to Earth of June 26. But that was before a series of meetings on Thursday and Friday in which scientists Mission management must review the findings of two critical problems with the Starliner spacecraft: five separate leaks in the helium system that pressurizes the Starliner’s propulsion system and the failure of five of the 28 The system’s thrusters control the vehicle’s response as the Starliner approaches the station.

NASA’s update did not provide any information about the discussions in these meetings, but it is clear that the agency’s leaders cannot be comfortable with all the contingencies. that Wilmore and Williams may encounter during their return flight to Earth, including safe undocking from space. station, cruised away, performed a deorbit burn, separated the crew capsule from the service module, and flew through the planet’s atmosphere before landing by parachute in the New Mexico desert.

Spaceships have a 45-day limit

Now it will take more time for NASA and Boeing’s engineering teams. Sources say NASA sees June 30 as a possible return date, but the agency also wants to conduct a few spacewalks outside the station. These spacewalks, currently scheduled for June 24 and July 2, will now continue. Starliner will return to Earth at a later date, possibly no earlier than the Fourth of July holiday.

“We are using the extra time strategically to clear the way for some important station operations while completing readiness for the return of Butch and Suni on the Starliner, and while gaining valuable insight into the system upgrades we wanted to make for post-certification tasks.”

In some ways, it would be helpful for NASA and Boeing to let Starliner dock at the space station for longer periods of time. They could collect more data on the vehicle’s performance on long-duration missions — Starliner will eventually fly operational missions that will allow astronauts to stay in orbit for six months at a time.

However, the vehicle is only rated for a 45-day stay on the space station, and that clock starts ticking on June 6. What’s more, NASA feels the need to further delay the vehicle. This is to be comfortable with its performance being sub-optimal. journey back to Earth. In several press conferences since the Starliner arrived at the station, officials have downplayed the overall severity of these problems — repeatedly saying that the Starliner is allowed to go home “in the event of an emergency.” But they have not fully explained why they are still not comfortable with flying the Starliner back to Earth under normal circumstances.

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.

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