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‘We’re not in a hurry to get home’

‘We’re not in a hurry to get home’
‘We’re not in a hurry to get home’

NASA and Boeing officials are pushing back against recent reports that the two astronauts brought to the ISS on Starliner have been stranded on board. The companies said in a news conference Friday that they are using “the luxury of time” to learn as much as possible about the capsule before it returns to Earth.

The two astronauts will remain there for a few more weeks while the company and NASA conduct more tests from the ground — marking yet another extension of their stay, although officials declined to give a new target date for their return.

“I want to make it very clear that we are in no rush to get home,” Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said at the news conference. “The station is a nice, safe place to stop and take our time to work through the vehicle and make sure we’re ready to come home.

In the meantime, Boeing and NASA engineers will head to the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico to conduct a series of remote tests on the spacecraft’s thrusters. There are 28 thrusters on Starliner, which are responsible for making minute changes to the spacecraft’s movements in orbit, and they are critical for safely docking and undocking the ISS. That docking process was halted on approach when five malfunctioned in orbit, but engineers were able to bring four of those thrusters back online, allowing docking to continue.

Starliner has also had several small helium leaks since its June 5 launch, but NASA and Boeing officials said these leaks will not pose a problem for the reentry. Starliner does not leak helium while docked with the ISS because they are in a confined part of the spacecraft. The spacecraft also has 10 times as much helium as it needs to disconnect and undergo the deorbit burn, Stich said.

The thruster testing is expected to last a few weeks, during which time NASA space veterans Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will remain on the station. As of today, they have been aboard the ISS for nearly three weeks; the mission was expected to last only a week or so. The landing plan will be determined once the thruster tests are complete, Stich said.

“We just look at the timeline to do that test and then assess the test (data),” he added. “That’s really the long stick, I would say, in determining a landing date.”

Starliner is designed for missions of up to 210 days, but this first crewed demonstration mission was limited to 45 days because of limitations on the batteries on the capsule’s crew module. But those batteries are recharged by the space station, so Stich said the agency is considering extending the maximum stay.

“The risk for the next 45 days is essentially the same as the first 45 days,” he said.

While Stich and Mark Nappi, Boeing’s commercial crew program manager, said the cause of the problems is still not understood, it is safe to bring astronauts home in the Starliner in case of an emergency. The ISS nearly had one earlier this week, when a malfunctioning Russian Earth-observing satellite broke up in orbit. (The cause of the breakup is unclear.) NASA officials instructed the crew to take shelter in their respective spacecraft, a standard precaution. Even though no debris came near the ISS, in the event of a collision, the astronauts would have used those spacecraft to eject from the station and return to Earth.