NASA Says No Plan to Use SpaceX to Rescue Boeing Starliner Astronauts

NASA Says No Plan to Use SpaceX to Rescue Boeing Starliner Astronauts
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For two astronauts supposedly stranded in space, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore of NASA are certainly enjoying living aboard the International Space Station for an extra month or two.

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“We are having a great time here on I.S.S.,” Ms. Williams said during a news conference from orbit on Wednesday.

She added: “I’m not complaining. Butch isn’t complaining that we’re up here for a couple of extra weeks.”

Ms. Williams and Mr. Wilmore arrived at the space station on June 6 as part of a shakedown flight for Boeing’s new Starliner spacecraft. Their stay was originally scheduled for just over a week, but it now has stretched indefinitely as engineers work to better understand problems that occurred with Starliner’s propulsion system before it docked with the space station.

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The Boeing Starliner is one of two spacecraft that NASA has hired to take astronauts to and from the space station. The other, the Crew Dragon from SpaceX, has been in operation for four years, but NASA officials say they want two different spacecraft so they have a backup in case one vehicle experiences a problem.

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Starliner launched successfully last month. One small helium leak occurred before launch, but four more popped up once Starliner reached orbit. The inert gas is used to push the propellant that powers the spacecraft’s maneuvering thrusters in the near-weightless environment of orbit.

Then, as the spacecraft approached the space station, five of Starliner’s 28 small thrusters did not fire quite as expected, and the computer switched them off. During the troubleshooting, four of the five misbehaving thrusters were brought back into service, although with diminished power. The spacecraft was able to dock successfully, and the astronauts have been aboard the outpost since.

Despite the glitches, Mr. Wilmore gushed about Starliner. On the first day when the astronauts tried flying the spacecraft manually, “The spacecraft performed unbelievably well,” Mr. Wilmore said during the news conference.

When the thruster problems occurred on the second day, “You could tell the thrust control, the capability was degraded,” he said.

The spacecraft’s automated navigation system was still able to precisely guide Starliner to the docking port, Mr. Wilmore said.

NASA and Boeing officials have insisted that the spacecraft can safely bring Ms. Williams and Mr. Wilmore back to Earth, but that it is prudent to gather as much data as possible to prevent the problems from recurring during future Starliner missions. They have not yet set a return date.

“We’re taking time to build confidence in the spacecraft to understand the thruster performance,” Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said during a second news conference, this one on Earth, on Wednesday. “What we’re doing is not unusual for a new spacecraft.”

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Mr. Stich said that optimistically, Starliner, with Ms. Williams and Mr. Wilmore aboard, would return by the end of July.

“There’s really been no discussion with sending another Dragon to rescue the Starliner crew,” Mr. Stich said.

NASA and Boeing are conducting experiments at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico using a thruster identical to the ones on Starliner, reproducing the pace of firings that were performed en route to the space station.

That will allow engineers to examine the thruster directly to see if there is any damage. The same test thruster will then simulate the firings needed for the return trip. In orbit, the troublesome thrusters are on what is known as the service module, a cylindrical piece below the capsule where the astronauts sit. The service module will be jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere during the astronauts’ return trip, so there will not be a chance to directly inspect it for problems.

Those tests should be completed by this weekend, Mr. Stich said.

Analysis has indicated that Starliner has more than enough helium for the trip home.

Still, Starliner, already years behind schedule, could face more delays in the coming year.

The hope was for Starliner to be ready for its first operational mission in February, taking four astronauts to the space station for a six-month stay. Mr. Stich said no decision would be made until after the test flight has landed, but said, “The longer we go, probably the more risk there is to that date in February.”

NASA has been preparing for the possibility of substituting SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for the February mission. The next Starliner flight would then be pushed to later in 2025.

Mr. Wilmore said he and Ms. Williams remained “absolutely confident” in Starliner.

“We will be ready then unless the data shows otherwise,” he said. “But right now, based on what we know, we are absolutely ready.”



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