July 13, 2024

Boeing’s public relations crisis is now out of this world: the company’s Starliner spacecraft – and the two astronauts on board – are currently stuck in space.

After what began as an eight-day mission, American astronauts Sunita “Suni” Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore have now spent the better part of a month on their space capsule attached to the International Space Station as engineers work out the problems with Starliner.

It remains unclear when exactly the astronauts will be able to make their return to Earth. A Boeing spokesperson told the Guardian that they “adjusted the return of Starliner Crew flight test to after two planned spacewalks on Monday, June 24 and Tuesday, July 2” and that they “do not currently have a date for the return not, and will evaluate opportunities after the spacewalks”.

The spokesperson also noted “the crew is not pressed for time to leave the station, as there are many supplies in orbit, and the station’s schedule is relatively open until mid-August”.

The Starliner blasted off into space from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on June 5 Space Force Station after two previously unsuccessful launches on May 6 and June 1, respectively.

A year behind schedule and $1.5 billion over budget, this particular Nasa-Boeing mission had problems long before that its official launchincluding problems with reaction control thrusters and helium leaks.

The Boeing spokesman noted that the helium leaks and most of the thrust problems “were all stable and not a concern for the return mission.

“Four of the five thrusters that shut down before are now working normally. This means only one thruster out of 27 is currently offline. This presents no problem for the return mission,” the spokesperson added.

Nasa and Boeing officials maintain that the astronauts are not stranded and that the technical problems do not threaten the mission. Nasa said the spacecraft required seven hours of free-flight time to perform a normal end-of-mission and it “currently has enough helium left in its tanks to support 70 hours of free-flight activity after undocking”.

Steve Stich, Nasa’s commercial crew program manager, said in a press briefing last week: “We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process. We let the data drive our decision-making regarding the management of the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking.”

The spacecraft is cleared to undock and return to Earth if there is an emergency or needs a quick departure.

“While Starliner was docked, all the manifolds were closed during normal mission operations preventing the loss of helium from the tanks,” Nasa said.

If the Starliner is not safely operational, Williams and Wilmore may have to catch a ride with the crew on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is also currently docked on the opposite side of the International Space Station.

Boeing’s latest crisis comes on the heels of other public crises it has had with various commercial aircraft, although the company insists they are operated separately.

The Starliner launch is the sixth journey of an American-crewed spacecraft since the space race began in the late 1950s.

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