Skip to main content

Boeing and NASA in no rush to bring Starliner astronauts back from space station

NASA’s Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams giving an interview on board the International Space Station on Wednesday July 10.
NASA’s Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams givie an interview on board the International Space Station on Wednesday, July 10. NASA TV

Two NASA astronauts will remain on the International Space Station (ISS) for at least several more weeks, as testing continues on the troubled Boeing Starliner that carried them to the station on its first crewed test flight. Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are safe on the station and, NASA insists, not stranded, but they will not yet be returning home due to thruster issues with their spacecraft.

In a press conference today from the station, Wilmore was particularly enthusiastic about the handling of the spacecraft following launch. “The spacecraft performed unbelievably well,” he said.

As part of the astronauts’ evaluation of the spacecraft, they give a grade from one to 10 on a scale called the Cooper–Harper rating scale, with one being the best possible. “I’ve never given a one in all my flight test years on a Cooper-Harper rating scale for handling qualities, but I was tempted,” he said.

After the first day, though, there were problems with the Starliner’s thrusters, which caused handling issues. Even with these issues, though, Wilmore said that the docking of the spacecraft with the ISS was still extremely precise.

Williams gave details about what the pair have been up to during their time on the ISS, including checking over the Starliner and testing that it would hold four people comfortably. They have also been working with other members of the current ISS crew on maintenance tasks on the station, like replacing pumps and working on science research.

Regarding the issues with Starliner, Williams was relaxed, saying, “This is a test flight, so we were expecting to find some things, and so we are finding stuff and we are correcting it.”

In a later press update, NASA and Boeing representatives discussed the issues further. “We’re taking our time on the ground to go through all the data that we have before we decide on the return opportunity. We’re taking time to build confidence in the spacecraft, to understand the thruster performance,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, who detailed some of the testing being done regarding the thruster issues. “What we’re doing is not unusual for a new spacecraft.” He also emphasized that in an emergency, William and Wilmore could use the Starliner to return to Earth.

NASA still has not given a date for the planned return of the Starliner to Earth, though the departure of the current ISS Crew-8 and the arrival of Crew-9, both scheduled for mid-August, will be a scheduling concern. There is a possibility that the Starliner may return to Earth at the end of July, but this isn’t yet known for sure.

The most pressing issue for the Starliner in terms of time spent in orbit is its batteries, which were originally supposed to be used for 45 days only. Currently the Starliner is at 35 days in space, but Stich said that the batteries are healthy and not showing any performance issues, so that time could potentially be extended.

In the meantime, the astronauts will remain on the station and are sanguine about the situation. “This is the world of test,” Wilmore said. “There have been multiple issues with every spacecraft that has ever been designed, and that’s the nature of what we do.”

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
NASA sued by Florida man whose house was hit by space junk
The International Space Station.

The International Space Station orbiting about 250 miles above Earth. NASA

NASA is being sued by a man whose house was damaged by a piece of space junk that came from the International Space Station (ISS).

Read more
NASA spacewalk called off due to dramatic water leak from astronaut’s spacesuit
NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps (center) is pictured assisting NASA astronauts Mike Barratt (left) and Tracy C. Dyson (right) inside the Quest airlock.

NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps (center) assists NASA astronauts Mike Barratt (left) and Tracy C. Dyson inside the Quest airlock. NASA TV

A spacewalk performed by two NASA astronauts had to be called off early today when one astronaut's spacesuit experienced a water leak shortly after opening the hatch. Both astronauts are safe and out of their spacesuits inside the International Space Station (ISS), but the water leak was dramatic, with astronaut Tracy Dyson telling mission control: "There's water everywhere."

Read more
Starliner’s return to Earth delayed again, until next month
Boeing's Starliner capsule docked at the ISS.

The Boeing Starliner that is currently docked at the International Space Station (ISS) after making its first crewed test flight will not be returning to Earth this week as planned. The return of the Starliner has already been delayed once, but now NASA has announced that the return will not take place until early July.

The Starliner launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 6 and made it safely to the ISS carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore. However, there were problems with helium leaks both before and during the journey as well as an issue with the spacecraft's reaction control thrusters that required two attempts at docking.

Read more