Astronauts in Space Express Confidence in Boeing

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Boeing StarlinerThey are convinced that the spaceship will return them to Earth.

Although they were supposed to return to Earth in mid-June, Sonny Williams and Butch Wilmore are still aboard the International Space Station due to technical problems with Boeing's Starliner capsule. But they say they're confident in their vehicle.

The two American astronauts on the first crewed flight of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft showed confidence in their craft on Wednesday, despite the problems they faced. Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams were originally scheduled to spend less than two weeks in the flight lab, but they have already been there for more than a month. The reason: problems with the capsule's propulsion system during its approach to the International Space Station (ISS), which prompted NASA to postpone its departure while tests were carried out.

“I have a very good feeling that the spacecraft is going to get us home, no problem,” Suni Williams said during a press conference from space. “In the meantime, we’re having a great time here on the International Space Station,” she added. Butch Wilmore praised the capabilities of the spacecraft he piloted manually on its way to the ISS, especially its precision. As a test pilot, he put the challenges he faces in perspective: “It’s the world of testing. It’s a tough business,” he said. “Every spacecraft that’s ever been designed has had multiple problems. That’s the nature of our job.”

Defenses

Just before the ship was due to dock with the station, five of the 28 small thrusters failed at some point, although all but one of the engines were restarted. NASA has since begun ground testing of a similar thruster, subjecting it to conditions similar to those experienced in flight.

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“During this flight, we fired the thrusters more than we expected,” Steve Stich, a senior NASA official, said Wednesday. He added that the ground test should allow for “understanding the impact of the heat” generated. “We don’t think we damaged the propellers,” said Mark Nappi, a senior Boeing manager, but these tests should allow for “confirmation.”

The propulsion system is crucial to getting back to Earth. The large thrusters provide the main thrust, while the smaller thrusters ensure the ship is properly oriented. But even if many of these small thrusters don’t work during landing, others could take over because the ship has more than enough to do the maneuver, Steve Stich explained.

Boeing teams are also working to better understand another anomaly: the discovery of a helium leak on board the ship. Helium, which should have been in sufficient supply despite the leaks, is a nonflammable gas but is used in the propulsion system.

Back by end of July at best.

The most optimistic date for the astronauts’ return is “the end of July,” said Steve Stich. That mission would allow the spacecraft to receive NASA certification and then begin regular space taxi operations. In the meantime, NASA astronauts have already been aboard the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft for four years. The space agency wants a second means of transportation from Boeing, to better handle potential problems with one of the capsules or emergencies. Steve Stich said Wednesday that “there have been no discussions” with SpaceX about sending a Dragon spacecraft to bring the astronauts back — which would be a humiliation for Boeing.

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(France Press agency)

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