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Astronauts are confident that Boeing’s space capsule can bring them back to Earth safely despite mishaps | Business

Astronauts are confident that Boeing’s space capsule can bring them back to Earth safely despite mishaps | Business

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Two astronauts who should have returned to Earth weeks ago said Wednesday they were confident Boeing’s space capsule could bring them back safely despite a series of annoying mishaps.

NASA test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams became the first humans to launch aboard Boeing’s new Starliner capsule early last month. Helium leaks and engine failures nearly prevented their arrival at the International Space Station and kept them there much longer than planned. Now they could not return until late July at the earliest, officials said.

In their first press conference from orbit, the pair said they expect to return once engine testing is complete here on Earth. They said they are not complaining about the extra time in orbit and enjoy helping the station crew. Both have previously worked in the orbiting laboratory, which also houses seven other staff members.

“I have a good feeling that the spacecraft will bring us home without any problems,” Williams told reporters.

The test flight was scheduled to last eight days and end on June 14.

Steve Stich, director of NASA’s commercial crew program, said the earliest the Starliner astronauts could return is late July. The goal is to get them back before SpaceX delivers a new crew in mid-August, but that too could change, he noted.

This week, NASA and Boeing are trying to replicate the Starliner’s engine problems on a brand-new example at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, one of the main landing sites in the western U.S. desert. The problem lies in the propulsion system used to maneuver the spacecraft.

Five engines failed as the capsule approached the space station on June 6, a day after launch. Four of those have since been reactivated. Wilmore said there should be enough engines left to get him and Williams out of orbit. There are also larger engines that could step in if needed.

“You know the mantra: failure is not an option. That’s why we’re staying here now,” Wilmore said. “We trust that the tests we’re doing are the right answers and will give us the data we need to come back.”

Boeing and NASA believe the ground tests are essential to finding out what might have gone wrong, because that part of the capsule – the service module – is discarded before landing. The leaks are also located in this disposable section.

According to Stich, tests so far have not been able to reproduce the high temperatures reached during the flight. Officials want to make sure the suspect engines are not damaged before returning the Starliner. They were fired more often than expected at the beginning of the flight and the additional stress may have caused them to fail, Stich said.

At the same time, ground tests are being conducted to better understand the helium leaks, which could be caused by poor seals. Officials have previously said there is still enough helium for the flight home.

Hurricane Beryl has delayed some work. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to NASA and Boeing control centers, was closed to all but essential employees earlier this week.

Boeing’s Mark Nappi stressed that Starliner and crew could return immediately in an emergency. The company does not believe the engines are damaged, “but we want to fill in the gaps and do this test to make sure.”

NASA ordered the Starliner and SpaceX Dragon space capsules for astronaut flights to and from the space station a decade ago, paying each company billions of dollars. SpaceX’s first taxi flight with astronauts took place in 2020. Boeing’s first manned flight was repeatedly postponed due to software and other problems.

There have been no talks with SpaceX about launching a rescue capsule, Stich said.

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