Explanatory – How can Boeing’s Starliner capsule bring its astronauts back to Earth?

Explanatory – How can Boeing’s Starliner capsule bring its astronauts back to Earth?
Explanatory – How can Boeing’s Starliner capsule bring its astronauts back to Earth?

Problems encountered by Boeing’s Starliner capsule, still docked at the International Space Station (ISS), have disrupted initial plans for the return of its two astronauts to Earth, as last-minute fixes and tests drag on a crucial mission for the future of Boeing’s space division.

NASA has rescheduled the planned return three times, and no date has been set to date. Since its June 5 liftoff, the capsule has experienced five helium leaks, five maneuvering thrusters have gone out and a propulsion valve has not completely closed, prompting the crew into space and the mission officials in Houston spent more time than expected making repairs during the mission.

Here’s an explanation of possible paths for Starliner and its veteran NASA astronauts, Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams.

THE CURRENT SITUATION

Starliner can remain docked with the ISS for up to 45 days, according to comments from NASA Commercial Crew Manager Steve Stich to reporters. But if absolutely necessary, for example if other problems arise that mission managers cannot resolve in time, it could remain docked for up to 72 days, relying on various backup systems, according to a person familiar with flight planning.

Within NASA, the latest planned return date for Starliner is July 6, according to this source who spoke on condition of anonymity. Such a return date would mean that the mission, initially planned for eight days, would last a month.

The Starliner’s consumable propulsion system is part of the aircraft’s “service module.” Current problems focus on this system, which is necessary to move the capsule away from the ISS and position it so that it plunges into the Earth’s atmosphere. Many Starliner thrusters overheated when fired, and leaks of helium – used to pressurize the thrusters – appear to be linked to the frequency of their use, Stich said.

Mr. Stich said recent tests of firing the thrusters, while the Starliner remains docked, gave mission teams confidence of a safe return, even as tests and examinations continue. The mission management team, made up of NASA and Boeing personnel, is carefully reviewing data on propulsion issues, running simulations in Houston, and studying ways to resolve them, such as by updating software or by changing the way the hardware is used.

Once NASA officials give the team the green light to return, Starliner’s thrusters will be used to detach the capsule from the ISS and begin a roughly six-hour return journey, gradually tightening its orbit before plunging into the Earth’s atmosphere for a landing, assisted by parachutes and airbags, at one of several possible sites in the southwestern United States.

This is the Starliner’s first mission to orbit carrying astronauts, the final test needed before NASA can certify it as the US space agency’s second craft bound for the ISS. It would join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has dominated the government market and the nascent private market for human spaceflight, despite Starliner’s years-long delays.

IN CASE OF THE UNEXPECTED

Despite the problems with the propulsion system, NASA has said that Starliner would be able to return astronauts to Earth if absolutely necessary, that is, if the capsule were to serve as a means of escape. ISS in the event of an emergency or if any of Starliner’s perishable items – such as its solar panels – showed signs of expiring sooner than expected.

Unlike the current Starliner mission, NASA has not set a return date for the first Crew Dragon mission carrying astronauts in 2020. This mission ultimately lasted 62 days because the astronauts had to participate in maintaining the ISS due to lack of personnel at the time.

IF THE STARLINER CANNOT BE USED

If the Starliner is deemed unable to return Wilmore and Williams safely to Earth, one option would be to send them back aboard Crew Dragon, which carried four astronauts to the station in March and is capable of accommodating more than people in an emergency.

This scenario, considered improbable, would undoubtedly be embarrassing for Boeing. But NASA and Boeing officials, as well as engineers familiar with the program, told Reuters that nothing in the Starliner’s current problems indicated that would be necessary.

In such a scenario, the fate of the Starliner would depend on several factors, including the extent of the technical problems.

The last time a NASA astronaut needed another means of transportation home was in 2022, when the Russian Soyuz capsule leaked coolant after being transported to the station two cosmonauts and American astronaut Frank Rubio.

NASA had considered using Crew Dragon to bring Rubio home, but Rubio ultimately used an empty Soyuz capsule that Russia had launched as a rescue vessel. Rubio’s mission was extended from six months to just over a year, or 371 days, which is a record length of time for an American in space.

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