Sunita Williams may remain in space for months

Wednesday 10th July 2024 07:23 EDT

WASHINGTON: Projected to last only days, the first crewed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft with two astronauts onboard faces uncertainty with no exact return to Earth announced.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, Steve Stich has said that the US space agency is considering extending the duration of Starliner’s mission from 45 to 90 days.

Officials have repeatedly hinted that the Starliner, which faced issues with helium leaks and thruster outages heading to the International Space Station in early June, will be safe to bring astronauts including Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore home.

Part of that desired extension is due to the ground tests that Boeing and NASA plan to conduct in New Mexico, seeking to better understand why some of the Starliner’s thrusters unexpectedly failed during the first leg of its journey.

Stich and Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of the Commercial Crew Program for Boeing, also said that engineers are still not certain about the reason behind the Starliner’s problems.

Nappi said that part of the aim is conducting the ground tests while the vehicle is still in space to try to whittle down possible reasons why the thrusters malfunctioned.

Meanwhile, Williams and Wilmore have integrated with the rest of the crew currently aboard the International Space Station and are conducting routine tasks.

Several more helium leaks were identified while the craft was heading to the International Space Station, along with the thruster issues. The Starliner’s service module, a cylindrical attachment at the bottom of the spacecraft that provides much of the vehicle’s power during flight, faced several issues, CNN reported.

As per the design, the service module will not survive the return to Earth. The module is jettisoned and destroyed as the Starliner spacecraft reenters the atmosphere and that’s the reason why Boeing and NASA teams then opted to leave the Starliner spacecraft safely docked with the space station while they worked to learn as much as possible about those issues.

It is not clear yet whether NASA will extend the maximum mission length to 90 days. Stich said officials must clear the battery life of the Starliner for that purpose. Although he noted that the batteries are being recharged at the space station, they should operate the same way after 90 days as they will for the first 45 days.

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