NASA astronauts stuck on Boeing spacecraft face high stakes return from ‘incredibly important mission’: expert

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NASA astronauts stuck on Boeing spacecraft face high stakes return from ‘incredibly important mission’: expert

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The two NASA astronauts stuck on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft have an approximate return-by date of July 20. 

That’s 45 days from its June 5 liftoff, which is how long Starliner can spend docked to the International Space Station (ISS). 

Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore’s original stay was scheduled for a week, but a series of issues, including recent helium leaks and thruster problems, pushed their homecoming back multiple times. 

“Operating in space, building these spacecraft, especially human-rated spacecraft for commercial companies, is a new endeavor that’s still incredibly technical,” Makena Young, a fellow with the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Fox News Digital. “It’s a really hard operating environment when things go wrong … It’s not like you can go to take it to a mechanic when you’re in space.”

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“An aurora streams below Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft docked to the forward port on the Harmony module as the International Space Station soared 266 miles above the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia,” according to NASA.  (NASA/Matt Dominick)

NASA and Boeing didn’t immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s questions.

Boeing told Newsweek late Tuesday afternoon that a majority of the helium leaks and thruster problems have been stabilized and are “not a concern” for Starliner’s safe return. 

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Only one of Starliner’s 27 thrusters remains offline, Boeing told Newsweek, and four of the five thrusters that were shut down are operating normally. 

A return date hasn’t been officially scheduled yet, but Reuters cited a NASA source who said the new target return date is July 6.

NASA's Expedition 71 crew members, along with Starliner's crew flight test members - Suni Williams (first row one the left) and Butch Wilmore (first row on the right).

NASA’s Expedition 71 crew members, along with Starliner’s crew flight test members – Suni Williams (first row on the left) and Butch Wilmore (first row on the right).  (NASA)

NASA’s most recent update came Monday, when Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), said the team is “taking our time and following our standard mission management team process.” 

“Starliner is performing well in orbit while docked to the space station,” Stich said in a statement.

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“We are strategically using the extra time to clear a path for some critical station activities while completing readiness for Butch and Suni’s return on Starliner and gaining valuable insight into the system upgrades we will want to make for post-certification missions.”

Family members of the astronauts declined comment, or didn’t return Fox News Digital’s calls.

“This is an incredibly important mission … These delays seem like a bad thing, and can erode confidence … but you really want to make sure that there are no questions in the back of your mind when you’re saying, ‘OK, yes, this is ready to launch humans.’”

— Makena Young

International Space Station

In this handout photo released by Roscosmos State Space Corporation, a view of the International Space Station taken on March 30, 2022, by crew of Russian Soyuz MS-19 space ship after undocking from the Station.  (Roscosmos State Space Corporation via AP, File)

Why this mission is vital

Boeing and the Elon Musk-funded SpaceX programs are pivotal players in NASA’s CCP, which would allow NASA to send astronauts and cargo to the ISS without relying on Russia.

Young said NASA has paid almost $2 billion to Russia to get 30 astronauts to the ISS and back after retiring the shuttle in 2011.

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Instead of paying the “hefty price tag” to an adversarial country, NASA turned to private U.S. companies to get people and humans to the space station. 

“This is an incredibly important mission,” Young said. “These delays seem like a bad thing, and can erode confidence that you have in the system … but you really want to make sure that there are no questions in the back of your mind when you’re saying, ‘OK, yes, this is ready to launch humans.’ They’re definitely necessary.”

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SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station for docking

In this Saturday, April 24, 2021 photo made available by NASA, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station for docking. (NASA via AP)

This was Boeing’s inaugural mission to bring humans to the ISS, while SpaceX’s Dragon craft has had several successful trips. 

This exact predicament illustrates the need to have at least two reliable options to get to and from the ISS, Young said.

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After 45 days are up, Young said Starliner can operate another 72 days on backup power. 

If, for some reason, the situation turns into a critical emergency and a race against the clock, SpaceX would likely prep a rescue mission with NASA, Young said, although she believes the issues will be resolved before it reaches that level. 

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“But it’s a great point to underscore as well, that these astronauts are not stranded because NASA does have this other system that is reliable and proven,” she said. 

“That’s why NASA always has a redundancy, so that if something does go wrong with one program, the other is able to easily step in.”

Astronaut on spacewalk

In this handout photo provided by NASA, Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, STS-118 mission specialist, participates in the mission’s third planned session of extravehicular activity as construction and maintenance continue on the International Space Station Aug. 15, 2007 in Space. ((Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

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Timeline with future dates to watch

  • June 5: Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore left Earth in Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft (with expected return date around June 12)
  • June 26: Boeing Starliner’s scheduled return to Earth scratched
  • Early July: Starliner’s rescheduled return to Earth (no official date set, but Reuters reported July 6 is the target date, citing NASA sources)
  • July 20: Marks 45 days since Starliner took off. The spacecraft can spend 45 days docked at the International Space Station
  • Sept. 30: Marks 72 days of Starliner’s backup power (the spacecraft can run for 72 days on backup, according to Young)

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