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Astronauts had to stay on the space station because of the Boeing capsule

Astronauts had to stay on the space station because of the Boeing capsule

Two NASA astronauts are staying longer on the International Space Station as technicians fix problems on Boeing’s new space capsule that arose during the trip there.

NASA did not set a return date Friday until after ground tests were completed and the astronauts were declared safe.

“We’re in no hurry to get home,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.

Veteran NASA test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams took off for the orbiting laboratory aboard Boeing’s Starliner capsule on June 5. It was the first astronaut launch for Boeing after years of delays and setbacks.

The test flight was expected to last about a week, enough time for Wilmore and Williams to check out the capsule while it was docked at the station. But problems with the capsule’s propulsion system, which is used to maneuver the spacecraft, prompted NASA and Boeing to delay the flight home several times while they analyzed the problems.

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They also wanted to avoid conflicting with spacewalks by space station astronauts. But a spacewalk this week was canceled after water leaked from an astronaut’s spacesuit. The problem has not been resolved, and next week’s planned spacewalk was postponed.

As Starliner approached the space station a day after launch, last-minute thruster failures nearly disrupted the docking. Five of the capsule’s 28 thrusters failed during docking; all thrusters except one were restarted.

Starliner already had one small helium leak when it launched into orbit, and more leaks occurred during the flight. Helium is used to pressurize the fuel for the thrusters. Boeing said this week that the two problems do not pose a problem for the return trip.

To delay the astronauts’ return, NASA and Boeing said they needed more time to gather information about the thruster problems and leaks while the capsule was docked. Both are located in the service module, a unit attached to the capsule that burns up during reentry.

NASA initially said the Starliner could stay on the space station for a maximum of 45 days due to battery limits. But in-flight tests have shown that limit can be extended, Stich said.

Officials said they will not set a date for a return while they conduct ground tests with capsule thrusters in the New Mexico desert, which are expected to last a few weeks. They want to try to replicate the situation that occurred during docking.

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“I want to make it very clear that Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” Stich said, adding that Starliner is designed for a mission of up to 210 days.

Stich said the astronauts could return to Earth in Starliner in the event of an emergency on the space station.

After the Space Shuttle fleet was retired, NASA turned over astronaut rides to private companies. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has made nine taxi flights for NASA since 2020. NASA plans to alternate using SpaceX and Boeing in transporting crews to and from the space station.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.