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NASA orders more tests on the Starliner, but says the crew is not stranded in space

Zoom in / Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft docks with the International Space Station on June 13.

NASA and Boeing officials on Friday pushed back from headlines that the commercial Starliner crew capsule was stuck aboard the International Space Station, but said they needed more time to analyze data to properly remove and re-enter the spacecraft.

Two NASA astronauts, Commander Butch Wilmore and Pilot Suni Williams, will spend the next few weeks aboard the space station as engineers on the ground conduct propulsion tests to better understand problems with the Starliner propulsion system in orbit. Wilmore and Williams launched on an Atlas V rocket on June 5 and landed on the station the next day, completing the first part of Starliner’s first test flight with astronauts.

NASA managers originally planned for the Starliner shuttle to stay at the space station for at least eight days, though they left open the possibility of a mission extension. The test flight will now last at least a month and a half as engineers wrestle with helium leaks and thruster malfunctions in the Starliner’s service module.

The Starliner spacecraft’s batteries were initially certified for only a 45-day mission, but NASA officials said they plan to extend the range after making sure the batteries are performing well.

“We have time,” said Ken Bowersachs, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.

Earlier, NASA and Boeing officials delayed the reentry and landing of the Starliner from mid-June, then from June 26, and now they have ruled out an early July landing. Last week, NASA said in a statement that the agency’s top leadership would meet to formally review the Starliner’s reentry readiness, which was not part of the original plan.

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“We’re not stuck on the ISS”

Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial group program, said Friday that he wants to clear up “misunderstandings” that have led to headlines claiming the Starliner spacecraft is stranded or stranded on the space station.

“I want to be very clear that Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” Stich said. “Our plan is to continue returning them to the Starliner and get them back home on time. We still have some work to do to get to the final turn, but they’re safe on the space station.”

With Starliner attached, the space station currently hosts three different crewed spacecraft, including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Russia’s Soyuz. No serious plans are under consideration to bring Wilmore and Williams home on another spacecraft.

“Obviously, we have the luxury of having multiple vehicles, and we do contingency plans for various eventualities, but right now, we’re really focused on getting Butch and Suni back on the Starliner,” Stich said.

“We’re not stuck on the ISS,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president in charge of the Starliner program. “It’s painful to read what’s out there. We’ve had a good test flight and it’s been done so far, and it’s looking pretty negative.”

Stich said NASA officials “have to be in frequent contact” with reporters to fill in gaps in information about the Starliner test flight. NASA’s written updates are not always timely, and often lack detail and context.

NASA officials have allowed the Starliner shuttle to make an emergency return to Earth if astronauts need to evacuate the space station for safety or medical reasons. But NASA has not yet approved the Starliner for re-entry and landing under “nominal” conditions.

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“When it’s an emergency situation, we’re prepared to put the crew on board and bring them home as a lifeboat,” Bowersachs said. “For a nominal entry, we want to see more data before we make a final call on onboarding employees, and that’s a serious call, and we’ll bring the senior management team together (for approval).”

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