Starliner Return Delayed Yet Again

Starliner Return Delayed Yet Again

Late today NASA said it is again delaying the return of the Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test. Unlike the earlier schedule changes, no new date was announced. NASA and Boeing said only they are “adjusting” the return date until after two spacewalks on the International Space Station are completed on July 2. That will allow time for further reviews of Starliner’s propulsion system.

After years of delays, Starliner lifted off on the Crew Flight Test (CFT) on June 5 with NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The launch was delayed about a month first because of a problem with the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket’s Centaur upper stage and then a helium leak in Starliner’s propulsion system.

Those problems seemed to be resolved by June 5 when Starliner lifted off enroute to the ISS. On the way, however, not only were more helium leaks detected, but five of Starliner’s Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters went offline.  Four were recovered, but one will not be used again.

During a media briefing earlier this week NASA and Boeing expressed confidence they understood the situation sufficiently and Wilmore and Williams would return to Earth on Wednesday, June 26. Originally they were to land on June 14. That changed to June 18 and then June 22.

Late this evening, however, NASA posted an update on its commercial crew blog site that the return has been delayed again and no new date set.

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. 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. Photo credit: NASA/Matt Dominick

Starliner lands on land like Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, not in the water like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or NASA’s Orion. The two primary landing sites are at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, which dictates a four-day spacing between landing opportunities.

On Tuesday, NASA and Boeing said Starliner would undock on June 25 and land on June 26.  Now, three days later, they are saying there is no set date for the return and they will wait until two ISS spacewalks planned for June 24 and July 2 are completed.

The blog post this evening says the date change “deconflicts” Starliner’s departure from the spacewalks “while allowing mission teams to review propulsion system data.”

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

The spacewalks were planned well in advance. It’s not clear why they’ve decided to wait until they’re completed for Starliner to undock. In fact, on Tuesday ISS Program Manager Dana Weigel said the dates for the spacewalks were chosen so as not to interfere with Starliner’s undocking.

Starliner is one of two space transportation systems developed through NASA’s commercial crew program of Public-Private Partnerships where the government and the private sector share in development costs and the government purchases services instead of owning the systems. Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts at the same time in 2014.  SpaceX’s Crew Dragon completed its version of this Crew Flight Test, which they called Demo-2, in 2020 and Crew Dragon has been operational since then.

NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said tonight they are “taking our time” and “letting the data drive our decision making relative to managing the small helium leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking.”

Stich said “it is appropriate for us to complete an agency-level review, similar to what was done ahead of NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 return after two months in orbit, to document the agency’s formal acceptance on proceeding as planned.” No mention of the need for an agency-level review was mentioned in Tuesday’s briefing.

NASA said tonight “the crew is not pressed for time” and there are “plenty of supplies” on ISS and ISS’s schedule is “relatively open through mid-August.”

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