Hot Posts


Astronauts still stuck on ISS due to problems with Starliner spacecraft

Last week I asked if Boeing was going to be able to bring their astronauts, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore back to Earth from the International Space Station. They were already almost three weeks overdue at that point because Boeing's Starliner spacecraft had sprung multiple helium leaks and suffered multiple thruster failures when attempting to dock with the space station. The company has slowly begun releasing more details as to what's been going on in conjunction with NASA. The outlook for the astronauts is no better now than it was then. If fact, if anything it's possibly worse. Boeing is now saying that they can't even attempt a return flight until at least July. It's also becoming increasingly clear that they never should have risked the launch in the first place because they underestimated the severity of the leaks that the craft was experiencing back on June 5. 

From the NY Post:

NASA and Boeing managers knew their Starliner rocket had a leak before launch but believed it was too small to pose a threat — as two astronauts now remain stuck at the International Space Station over the issue, new reports say.

Officials found a helium leak on the troubled Starliner before its launch June 5, but NASA and Boeing leaders said the rocket was good to go because the issue was supposedly too small to pose a safety threat for the spacecraft, CBS News said. The rocket’s launch date had already been delayed due to another leak.

Then once in orbit, four more helium leaks developed, with one thruster officially deemed unusable.

Boeing initially reported "a small helium leak" on the launch pad but deemed it to be too small to represent a flight safety risk. But now they are saying that there were a total of five leaks. During the flight, they reported "a thruster failure." But it turns out that five of the thrusters failed, though they eventually got four of them working again. They believe that the thrusters overheated during the docking attempt, but they still don't seem to be entirely sure.

Steve Stich is the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program and is tasked with overseeing and working with Boeing on this program. He said this weekend that NASA is "letting the data drive our decision-making relative to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance." He repeated his assurance that NASA still has confidence in the Starliner and that it is  "performing well in orbit while docked to the space station.”

Perhaps that's true and I'm no rocket scientist (literally) but just how much "performing" does the ship have to do while it's locked to a hatch on the ISS? I mean, all it really has to do to succeed at the moment is avoid falling off. Have they managed to stop the leaks yet? They haven't confirmed that as of this latest update. Of potentially even more concern, Starliner still has the same set of thrusters installed (minus one) that they took off with. They have reportedly been able to handle brief test firings during this investigation, but will they be able to handle the full load when the ship is detached and preparing to reenter the planet's atmosphere?

I'm honestly not trying to be a worry-wart here or cause needless panic, but these seem like important questions. Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore have already been up there for nearly a month longer than the mission was originally scheduled to last and the ISS doesn't have limitless supplies of water or food, to say nothing of oxygen. If everyone is fully confident that the ship is capable of getting them safely back to the ground, it seems as if they will need to pull the trigger soon. If not, they will be looking for Plan B and that would almost certainly involve asking Elon Musk to take a Crew Dragon up to fetch them. But that would take time as it would require modifications to match with their spacesuits and equipment. Has anyone talked to Musk yet? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Post a Comment