Boeing Starliner Astronauts Are Stuck In Space As NASA Scrambles To Fix Helium Leaks

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NASA Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will not be returning to Earth this week, as NASA reported the team needs more time to review propulsion system data. As of now, the earliest return for the two astronauts is next Tuesday, July 2, 2024.

After years of delays, the Boeing Starliner successfully launched from Florida on June 6, 2024. Following the launch, the spacecraft was found to have several helium leaks, one known before launch, and two more post launch. Starliner successfully docked with ISS on June 6, and the two astronauts onboard were able to enter the space station at 3:45pm EDT. While Wilmore and Williams were only meant to stay on ISS for about a week, their departure has been delayed because of ongoing issues with the spacecraft.

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NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams.

“We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process,” explained Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “We are letting the data drive our decision making relative to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking. Additionally, given the duration of the mission, it is appropriate for us to complete an agency-level review, similar to what was done ahead of the NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 return after two months on orbit, to document the agency’s formal acceptance on proceeding as planned.”

Williams and Wilmore have not been sitting idle while onboard the ISS. The two astronauts gave a live walkthrough of the Boeing Starliner a few days after docking. The two also integrated with the Expedition 71 crew, helping with station operations, as well as completing add-on in-flight objectives for NASA certification of Starliner.

While the extended stay was not planned, NASA says the crew is not pressed for time to leave. The space agency says there are plenty of supplies in orbit, and the station’s schedule is relatively open through mid-August.

“The crew’s feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and they know that every bit of learning we do on the Crew Flight Test will improve and sharpen our experience for future crews,” remarked Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Starliner Program.