Boeing Thruster Tests Could Take ‘Weeks’ Before Astronauts Come Home

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are in space much longer than expected
NASA/Robert Markowitz

  • On June 5, two astronauts flew to the International Space Station on a new Boeing spacecraft.
  • They were scheduled to return eight days later, but delays were caused by problems with the thrusters and helium leaks.
  • NASA and Boeing say there is no reason to panic and that the astronauts are busy.

The good news for Boeing’s Starliner capsule is that it has finally put people into low Earth orbit. The problem is that it hasn’t put them down yet — and that may be a while before it does.

The problems that forced astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to extend their stay on the International Space Station were the culmination of years of shortcomings that have delayed the Starliner, NPR reported July 3. The spacecraft is leaking some of the helium that is part of its propulsion system, the outlet reported, and a minority of its thrusters were experiencing problems.

In a telephone press conference late last month, NASA official Steve Sitch said a booster rocket is undergoing rigorous testing on the ground to try to replicate the problems seen in space. He said the tests could begin July 2 and last “a couple of weeks.”

“I want to make it very clear that Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” Sitch said. “They are safe on the space station, their spacecraft is functioning well and they are enjoying their time on the space station.”

The delays underscore how Boeing is being outpaced by SpaceX, which in March launched its eighth manned NASA flight into orbit. The Elon Musk-led rival has also gained ground on national security, the Wall Street Journal reported July 1, sending more classified payloads such as spy satellites into space than United Launch Alliance, Boeing’s joint venture with Lockheed Martin.

In addition to the ground tests, NASA has been testing the Starliner’s thrusters and systems while it’s still docked with the ISS. Wilmore and Williams aren’t alone; they joined Russian and American astronauts who were there on an existing mission, and space agency officials said there’s no shortage of supplies or anything else compelling them to rush.

Still, the delays underscore Boeing’s business woes. The company’s commercial aviation operations have been under regulatory scrutiny since a door plug broke on an Alaska Airlines flight in January, and Reuters and other media have reported that the U.S. Justice Department is preparing criminal charges in connection with fatal crashes of its 737 MAX jets.

Bank of America analyst Ron Epstein told NPR that the company is focused on making money for its investors at the expense of its “core tech business.”

In May, Musk tweeted a similar criticism.

“Too many non-technical managers at Boeing,” he wrote.

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