NASA and Boeing have announced another delay in the return of the Starliner Crew Flight Test spacecraft which is currently docked at the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft, carrying astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, was initially scheduled to return on June 26. However, the return has been postponed to allow for additional analysis and testing of the propulsion system.

Reason for the Delay

The decision to delay the Starliner's return stems from the need to review data related to small helium system leaks and thruster performance issues observed during the spacecraft's rendezvous and docking. According to Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, "We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process. We are letting the data drive our decision making." This careful approach ensures that all potential issues are thoroughly understood and mitigated before the spacecraft re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

While docked at the ISS, the Starliner is performing well, and the crew remains integrated with the Expedition 71 team. They are assisting with station operations and completing additional in-flight objectives for NASA's certification of the Starliner. The astronauts are not pressed for time, as there are ample supplies aboard the station, and the schedule is relatively open through mid-August.

Safety and Contingency Plans

Despite the delay, the Starliner is ready for an emergency undocking and return to Earth if necessary. NASA and Boeing's managers have ensured that Wilmore and Williams are not stranded and can leave the station promptly should any issues arise. The spacecraft's readiness for emergency departure has been a key consideration throughout the mission.

Upcoming Reviews and Spacewalks

NASA plans to conduct a formal re-entry readiness review before setting a new landing target date. This review will ensure that all aspects of the spacecraft's performance and safety are thoroughly assessed. The Starliner's undocking and return will be scheduled after two planned spacewalks on June 24 and July 2, allowing mission teams to prioritize these critical activities while completing readiness tasks for the Starliner's return.

Technical Challenges and Solutions

The Starliner's propulsion issues, particularly the helium leaks and thruster performance, are located in the service module, which will be jettisoned and burned up in the atmosphere during re-entry. This means engineers cannot inspect the hardware directly post-mission. Instead, they rely on telemetry and ongoing tests to ensure all systems function correctly. Recent tests, including a successful "hot-fire" test of the thrusters, have provided confidence that the necessary manoeuvres for re-entry can be executed safely.

This delay allows NASA and Boeing to gather valuable insights for future missions. By thoroughly understanding and addressing the current issues, they aim to enhance the performance and reliability of the Starliner for subsequent flights. NASA hopes to certify the Starliner for operational crew rotation flights to the ISS starting early next year, though this timeline may be adjusted based on the outcomes of the current mission.

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