NASA and Boeing deny Starliner crew is stranded: “We are in no hurry to return home”

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NASA and Boeing officials have disputed recent reports that two astronauts brought to the ISS on the Starliner remain stranded on the plane. The companies said in a press conference on Friday that they are using the “luxury of time” to learn as much as possible about the capsule before it returns to Earth.

The two astronauts will remain there for a few more weeks while the company and NASA conduct more testing from the ground — meaning their stay will likely get another extension, though officials declined to give a new date for their return.

“I want to make it very clear that we are in no rush to return home,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, during the press conference. “The station is a good, safe place to stop and take time to work with the vehicle and make sure we’re ready to return home.”

Meanwhile, Boeing and NASA engineers will head to the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico to perform a number of remote tests on the spacecraft’s thrusters. There are 28 thrusters on Starliner, which are responsible for making subtle changes to the spacecraft’s movements in orbit, and they are crucial for safe docking and undocking from the ISS. The docking process was halted when five of them malfunctioned in orbit, but engineers were able to bring four of those thrusters back online, allowing docking to proceed.

Starliner has also had several small helium leaks since its June 5 launch, but NASA and Boeing officials said these leaks are not a concern for the return. Starliner is not leaking any helium while docked to the ISS because they are located in a part of the spacecraft that is closed. The spacecraft has ten times the amount of helium needed to go through the undocking and deorbit burns, Stich said.

Thruster testing is expected to take a few weeks, during which time NASA space flight veterans Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will remain on the station. To date, they have been on the ISS for about three weeks; the mission was expected to last just a week or so. Landing plans will be determined after thruster testing is complete, Stich said.

“We’re just looking at the timeline to do that test and then review the test (data),” he said. “I would say that’s the biggest hurdle in setting a landing date.”

Starliner is designed for missions of up to 210 days, but this first crewed demonstration mission was limited to 45 days because of battery limitations on the capsule’s crew module. But those batteries are being recharged by the space station, so Stich said the agency is considering extending the maximum length of stay.

“The risk for the next 45 days is essentially the same as the first 45 days,” he said.

While the root cause of the problems is still not understood, Stich and Mark Nappe, program manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program, said Starliner is safe to bring astronauts home in an emergency. There was a near-accident at the ISS earlier this week, when a defunct Russian Earth observation satellite broke up in orbit. (The cause of the breakup is unclear.) NASA officials instructed the crew to take shelter in their respective spacecraft, a standard precaution. While no debris came close to the ISS, astronauts would have used those spacecraft to get off the station and return to Earth in the event of a collision.

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