Why is Sunita Williams still stuck in space?

Astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore, aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, are experiencing an extended mission in space due to unforeseen technical challenges. Originally planned for just a few days, the mission, which began on June 5, now faces an uncertain duration before the astronauts can return to Earth.

Shortly after launching and docking with the International Space Station (ISS), the Starliner encountered multiple helium leaks and thruster failures. Significant issues with the spacecraft’s service module, essential for power during flight, included helium leaks that incapacitated five thrusters. According to CNN, four of these thrusters have since been restored to functionality.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme manager, Steve Stich, mentioned the possibility of extending the mission from 45 to 90 days to thoroughly address these issues. Stich emphasized the need to complete a series of tests and data reviews before determining a landing date, stating, “We’re not in a rush to come home.”

Boeing and NASA’s Response to the Challenges

To resolve the thruster problems, Boeing and NASA plan to conduct ground tests in New Mexico. Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and programme manager, underscored the importance of these tests. He explained that the results will guide their next steps, including the possibility of performing additional tests while the Starliner remains docked at the ISS.

Current Activities on the ISS

NASA Flight Engineer Matthew Dominick and other crew members have been engaged in various tasks, including loading trash, discarding gear, and conducting eye exams to study the effects of microgravity on vision. Williams and Wilmore have been involved in space botany experiments, replacing cameras and sensors in the Plant Habitat growth chamber.

Addressing Concerns About Being “Stuck” in Space

While the astronauts were initially scheduled to return on June 13, their return has been postponed, potentially until after July 2, depending on the completion of ground tests and safety assessments. NASA has refuted claims that the astronauts are “stuck” in space, confirming that the Starliner can still undock and fly under emergency conditions. However, due to fuel capacity limitations, the spacecraft can only remain docked to the ISS for 45 days, after which alternate transport options like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or the Russian Soyuz may be considered.

Financial and Operational Implications

The Starliner programme has already exceeded its $4.5 billion budget by $1.5 billion and has faced numerous delays. This mission’s complications add to Boeing’s financial and operational challenges, contrasting with the success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has been routinely flying missions since its first test flight in 2020.

Mark Nappi defended the current mission, highlighting its value in providing crucial data for refining the spacecraft for future missions.

Space Debris Concerns

In an unrelated event, a defunct Russian satellite, RESURS-P1, fragmented into over 100 pieces of debris, posing risks to spacecraft and satellites in crowded orbits. This incident underscores the growing issue of space debris and the potential complications it brings to satellite operations and space missions.

As NASA and Boeing work to resolve the technical problems with the Starliner spacecraft, Williams and Wilmore continue their extended stay on the ISS. The mission’s outcome will significantly impact Boeing’s role in NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme and the future of human spaceflight.