NASA still expects Starliner to bring astronauts back from ISS

Wearing Boeing spacesuits, NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore (R) and Suni Williams depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center for Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida to board the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for the Crew Flight Test launch on June 5, 2024.

Miguel J. Rodriguez Carrillo | Afp | Getty Images

With NASA astronauts docked at the International Space Station for much longer than planned, agency leaders on Wednesday acknowledged possible alternatives to Boeing’s Starliner to bring the crew back to Earth.

Still, the Boeing spacecraft remains the main option for the returning crew, officials said.

Officials say the Starliner capsule “Calypso” could return from its extended stay at the ISS later this month, pending results of testing on a faulty propulsion system. Starliner has now been in space for 36 days and counting, while the agency and Boeing conduct additional tests in New Mexico before the spacecraft is cleared to return.

It is the first mission in which Starliner carries people. NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will fly on board.

Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Manager, stressed during a press conference that the first “option today is to have Butch and Suni return on the Starliner,” adding that “we don’t see a reason at this time” to switch to the agency’s other transportation option, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, to bring the astronauts back.

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Stich acknowledged that a SpaceX capsule could be part of contingency plans in the event Starliner returns empty from the ISS, but noted that NASA doesn’t yet have to “decide whether we need to do something differently.”

“Certainly we’ve dusted off some of those things to compare with Starliner, so that we’re prepared in case we do have to use some of those things,” Stich said.

“[But] “There was no real discussion about sending another Dragon to rescue the Starliner crew,” Stich added later.

SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule ‘Endeavour’ as seen from the International Space Station on May 2, 2024.


Boeing and NASA began testing the spacecraft’s thrust technology on the ground in White Sands, New Mexico, on July 3, with the goal of replicating a problem that caused as many as five of Calypso’s thrusters to fail as the spacecraft maneuvered to dock with the ISS. The ground tests are being conducted “to make sure that with all of these pulses and all of the heat that we’re putting into it, there’s no damage to the thrust,” Stich said.

Stich noted that a return of Starliner in “late July” is “optimistic,” based on completion of testing. Boeing and NASA teams at White Sands are conducting inspections of the test thruster over the next week.

But “so far we have not been able to match the temperatures we saw during the flight,” Boeing’s Mark Nappi, vice chairman of the Starliner program, said during the news conference.

“What we’re trying to do with this test is fill in some of the gaps, because… what we’re trying to do is understand if the thrusters are performing well [as expected]then we can undock and just go back. If the thrusters were damaged somehow, what would we do differently?” Nappi said.

“We don’t think there is any damage to the thrusters, but we want to fill in the gaps and do this test to assure ourselves,” Nappi added.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft docked with the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting above Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, on June 13, 2024.


Wilmore and Williams spoke to the press from the ISS and both expressed confidence in their return aboard the Starliner.

“We trust that the tests we are doing are the tests we need to do to get the right answers and get the data that we can come back with,” Wilmore said.

Starliner was once seen as a competitor to SpaceX’s Dragon, which has made 12 crewed trips to the ISS over the past four years. But a series of setbacks and delays have steadily relegated Starliner to a secondary position for NASA, with the agency planning to have SpaceX and Boeing fly astronauts on alternating flights.

The Starliner crew flight test is the last major step before NASA certifies Boeing to take crew members on six-month operational missions, beginning as early as February.

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