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More Boeing woe as astronauts stranded on ISS

written by Adam Thorn | June 23, 2024

This dramatic shot shows Starliner above Earth, likely on approach to the ISS. (NASA, Boeing)

Boeing is facing more criticism of its standards after it revealed that its Starliner spacecraft has indefinitely delayed its return to Earth after docking with the International Space Station.

The news means astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams are effectively stranded in the space laboratory, having blasted off earlier this month and only been due to stay a week.

However, the aerospace giant and NASA again played down concerns regarding the thruster and helium leak problems encountered after launch, insisting the spacecraft remains cleared for return in case of an emergency.

Boeing’s wider reputation has a lot riding on the spacecraft’s success following the mid-air blowout of a door plug on board an Alaska Airlines MAX 9 in January.

That incident significantly came after two MAXs crashed in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019, killing 346 people and leading to claims there was a poor safety culture at the planemaker.


In a new statement, NASA said the delay “deconflicts” Starliner’s undocking with a series of spacewalks and would allow its team time to review propulsion system data.

“We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process,” said 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 NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 return after two months on orbit, to document the agency’s formal acceptance on proceeding as planned.”

NASA added that mission managers are now “evaluating future return opportunities” following the station’s two planned spacewalks on Monday, 24 June and Tuesday, 2 July.

“Starliner is performing well in orbit while docked to the space station,” said Stich. “We are strategically using the extra time to clear a path for some critical station activities while completing readiness for Butch and Suni’s return on Starliner and gaining valuable insight into the system upgrades we will want to make for post-certification missions.”

Work carried out on Starliner before it returns home includes firings of several aft-facing reaction control system (RCS) thrusters. Five were shut down as Starliner approached the ISS before controllers restored four to allow docking.

“We feel very confident in the thrusters and the team is just making sure to go look at the thrusters in detail across the whole flight,” said Stich last week.

Starliner’s problems come with the FAA still subjecting Boeing to a cap of producing just 38 737 MAX aircraft per month following the Alaska Airlines door incident. That rate is below the 45 it produced in November and far shorter than its July 2025 target of 56 planes.

The situation is contributing to a global shortage of new aircraft. In Australia, for example, Virgin revealed in March that it’s starring down potential late arrivals of new MAXs, including six MAX 8s and all 25 of its MAX 10s.

Virgin now expects to only receive four more MAX 8s this year from its order of 14, with the remaining six to arrive from early 2025, while the MAX 10s will not arrive until 2026 at the earliest.

The problems led to the airline indefinitely suspending direct flights from Adelaide to Bali.

The service was already due to stop between 28 April and 9 June, but that suspension will now continue until further notice. It previously stopped the route between 6 February and 17 March to allow flights to continue during the holiday period.

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