Why Starliner Spacecraft Carrying Sunita Williams Is Stuck In Space, When Will It Return? | Explained

The spacecraft can remain docked for up to 45 days, and the ISS has sufficient supplies for several months, ensuring the astronauts' immediate safety. If necessary, the astronauts could reportedly return to Earth on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, currently docked at the ISS.
NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams

The spacecraft, which transported NASA astronaut Sunita Williams to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month can remain docked for up to 45 days.

Photo : AP
The return journey of the Starliner spacecraft, which transported NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month, has been delayed. The Boeing-built spacecraft launched on June 5, docked at the ISS and was initially scheduled to return to Earth on June 26.
Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, stated on June 21 that they are addressing "minor helium system leaks and thruster performance issues" on the spacecraft.
This mission is pivotal as it marks another private company’s entry into the American space sector. Before Boeing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was the only private entity that had successfully sent US astronauts into space.

What is the Starliner Crew Flight Test Spacecraft Mission?

According to Boeing, the CST-100 Starliner is a “space capsule designed to transport people to and from low-Earth orbit (LEO).” LEO refers to orbits around Earth with an altitude of 2,000 km or less, facilitating transportation, communication, observation, and resupply.
The Starliner was developed with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and can carry up to seven passengers or a combination of crew and cargo for LEO missions. The spacecraft can be reused up to 10 times, with each turnaround taking six months.
Its importance is highlighted by NASA’s discontinuation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, which created a need for private sector involvement. In 2012, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to deliver cargo to and from the ISS, and in 2020, it became the first to transport humans to space and back.
However, the Starliner program has faced numerous issues. The current mission was delayed multiple times. For instance, a May 6 countdown was halted just two hours before launch due to a faulty pressure valve on the Atlas V upper stage, followed by further engineering issues causing additional delays.
The spacecraft was intended to dock with the ISS, where it would remain for eight days to allow the astronauts to work on research and experiments. It would then return the crew to Earth, demonstrating the spacecraft’s capability to safely transport astronauts.

Why Is the Starliner Spacecraft Still in Space?

Several critical issues were identified that must be resolved for a safe return flight.
Initial delays were linked to a spacecraft valve regulating oxidizer flow, essential for rocket propulsion and trajectory adjustments. Before launch, the valve emitted an audible buzzing sound, indicating a problem.
Additionally, NASA reported a small helium leak in the spacecraft’s service module, traced to a flange on a reaction control system thruster. Helium is crucial for pressurizing rockets, maintaining structural integrity, and maneuvering the spacecraft.
Although initially appearing minor, the issues compounded. Since the June 5 launch, the spacecraft has experienced five helium leaks, five thrusters failing, and a propellant valve not closing completely. These issues have required the crew and mission managers to spend more time than anticipated resolving them.

What Will Happen To Astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore?

The spacecraft can remain docked for up to 45 days, and the ISS has sufficient supplies for several months, ensuring the astronauts' immediate safety.
If necessary, the astronauts could reportedly return to Earth on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, currently docked at the ISS.
The spacecraft can be brought back in an emergency, but NASA aims to fully understand the problems to improve future missions. Importantly, a part of the service module will burn up upon re-entry, potentially resulting in the loss of some diagnostic data, says the report.
The mission’s success is critical for Boeing’s future in space exploration, and resolving these technical issues is a priority before the Starliner can safely return the astronauts to Earth.
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