July 21, 2024

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NASA indefinitely postpones Starliner return to review propulsion data

NASA indefinitely postpones Starliner return to review propulsion data
Zoom in / Boeing’s Starliner capsule lifts off on a United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

In an update issued late Friday evening, NASA said it was “adjusting” the Starliner spacecraft’s return date to Earth from June 26 to an unspecified time in July.

This announcement came after two days of long meetings to review the readiness of the spacecraft, developed by Boeing, to transport NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sonny Williams to Earth. According to sources, these meetings included high-level participation from the agency’s senior leaders, including Assistant Administrator Jim Frey.

This “crew flight test,” which was launched on June 5 aboard an Atlas V rocket, was originally scheduled to separate and return to Earth on June 14. However, engineers from NASA and Boeing studied the data from the vehicle’s problematic flight to the International Space Station, they gave up many chances of return.

On Friday night they did so again, citing the need to spend more time reviewing the data.

“We take our time”

“We take our time and follow our standard mission management team process,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. In NASA update. “We are letting the data drive our decision making regarding managing the small leaks in the helium system and the propulsion performance we observed during rendezvous and docking.”

Just a few days ago, on Tuesday, officials from NASA and Boeing set a date for a return to Earth on June 26. But that was before a series of meetings on Thursday and Friday, during which mission managers were scheduled to review findings on two important questions related to the planet. Starliner Spacecraft: Five separate leaks in the helium system that pressurizes Starliner’s propulsion system and five of the spacecraft’s 28 reaction control propulsion systems failed as Starliner approached the station.

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The NASA update did not provide any information about the deliberations during these meetings, but it is clear that the agency’s leaders could not be satisfied with all the contingencies that Wilmore and Williams might encounter during their return to Earth, including safe separation from space. station, maneuver away, perform an out-orbit burn, separate the crew capsule from the service module, and then fly through the planet’s atmosphere before landing under parachutes in the New Mexico desert.

The spacecraft has a limit of 45 days

Now, the NASA and Boeing engineering teams will take more time. NASA has considered June 30 as a possible return date, but the agency is also keen to conduct two spacewalks outside the station, the sources said. These spacewalks, currently planned for June 24 and July 2, will now go ahead. Starliner will return to Earth sometime after that, likely not before the Fourth of July holiday.

“We are using the additional time strategically to set the stage for some important station activities while completing preparation for Butch and Sonny’s return aboard the Starliner and gaining valuable insight into the system upgrades we wish to make for post-certification missions,” Stitch said.

To some extent, it would benefit NASA and Boeing to have the Starliner vehicle docked at the space station for a longer period of time. They can collect more data on the vehicle’s performance on longer-duration missions, and eventually the Starliner will fly on operational missions that will enable astronauts to remain in orbit for six months at a time.

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However, this vehicle was only rated to last 45 days on the space station, and that clock started ticking on June 6. Moreover, it is not optimal for NASA to feel the need to continue delaying the vehicle to feel comfortable with its performance on board. Journey back to Earth. During two press conferences since the Starliner docked at the station, officials have generally downplayed the severity of these problems — repeatedly saying the Starliner is allowed to return home “in case of emergency.” But they have not fully explained why they are not yet comfortable launching the Starliner back to Earth under normal circumstances.