Butch and Suni Confident Starliner Can Bring Them Home Safely

Butch and Suni Confident Starliner Can Bring Them Home Safely

The two NASA astronauts who are flying the Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test said today they are confident the spacecraft can bring them safely home. Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are enjoying an extended stay aboard the International Space Station while NASA and Boeing conduct ground tests to determine why several thrusters failed and helium leaks occurred on the way to the ISS a month ago. NASA and Boeing insist Starliner can bring them home anytime, but they want to keep the capsule in space a while longer in case in-orbit tests also are needed.

Butch and Suni participated in a brief news conference from the ISS where they expressed enthusiasm about Starliner’s capabilities. Both are experienced NASA astronauts and Navy test pilots who have been eagerly awaiting this chance to test out Boeing’s commercial crew spacecraft after years of delays.

Suni Williams (L) and Butch Wilmore (R) aboard the International Space Station answer questions from reporters, July 10, 2024. Screengrab.

The duo lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on June 5 and spent the next 24 hours enroute to the ISS. Although Starliner can operate entirely autonomously, astronauts also can control it manually and Butch and Suni did a number of tests during that time.

Butch enthused about the “truly amazing” precision with which he could control the spacecraft early on, but later five of the 28 Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters stopped working when software “deselected” them. Four later came back online, but one will not be used for the rest of the mission. At the same time, four more helium leaks were detected once Starliner was in orbit in addition to one that was discovered before liftoff.

NASA and Boeing are trying to figure out what happened.

Butch and Suni were supposed to visit the ISS for only 8 days, but their return has been repeatedly delayed and for now there is no set date for them to land. NASA and Boeing are confident Starliner is perfectly capable of bringing them home anytime, but the extended mission and lack of a return date has prompted headlines that Butch and Suni are “stranded” in orbit.

Agency and company officials repeatedly stress the reason for keeping Starliner in space is because the thrusters and helium leaks are in the Service Module, which does not return to Earth. It separates from the Crew Module during reentry and burns up in the atmosphere. Whatever tests need to be done on that specific Service Module must be done in space. Although Starliner could return to Earth anytime if there’s an emergency, unless there’s an emergency they want to keep there a while longer.

Shortly after Butch and Suni’s news conference, NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich and Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for Commercial Crew spoke with reporters. Stich indicated they are tentatively looking at late July for the landing, but will not make a definitive decision until the ground tests are completed.

Before launch, NASA and Boeing said Starliner could only remain in space for 45 days because of battery lifetime in the Crew Module. Now apparently that is not a limit. Stich said today the batteries are “healthy” and not showing any performance issues. “Any day is the same amount of risk. The next period of time would be the same risk as the current period of time; 45 more days would be about the same risk.”

Instead, the primary factor affecting when they’ll come home is that a routine crew exchange is scheduled for mid-August where Crew-9 will replace Crew-8 using SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The ISS has only two docking ports that can accommodate Crew Dragon and Starliner. One of each is there now. Starliner needs to depart so Crew-9 can dock.

Butch and Suni made clear they are happy to remain for as long as NASA wants them to. This is the third trip to ISS for both of them so it feels like home and there’s plenty of work to do. The ISS is permanently occupied by seven astronauts and cosmonauts rotating on six-month schedules. Two extra sets of hands are useful for catching up on maintenance tasks that have been “waiting for a little while” and conducting scientific experiments, Suni said. “We’ve been thoroughly busy up here, integrated right into the crew.”

Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT) astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore (blue flight suits) are greeted by the 7-member long-duration ISS crew members, June 6, 2024. Front row (L-R): Suni Williams (NASA), Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos), and Butch Wilmore (NASA). Second row (L-R) Alexander Grebenkin (Roscosmos), Tracy C. Dyson (NASA), and Mike Barratt (NASA). Back row (L-R): Nikolai Chub (Roscosmos), Jeanette Epps (NASA), and Matthew Dominick (NASA). Photo credit: NASA Television

Butch, Suni, and NASA and Boeing officials continually point out this is a test flight. Finding where the problems are is the whole point and the crew is trained to deal with them. Butch and Suni expressed confidence in the NASA/Boeing team, with whom they have been working closely for several years, and that they can handle any new processes or procedures that may be needed as a result of the ongoing troubleshooting tests.

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