Starliner astronauts are 'not complaining' about longer stay in space


Veteran NASA astronauts and former Navy test pilots Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Sunita "Suni" Williams are "comfortable" remaining in space for a few more weeks, they said in an update with NASA.

NASA provided an update on the Boeing Starliner and its crew via telecast Wednesday afternoon, addressing delays that have turned a weeklong trip into a 35-day-and-counting stay. According to the organization, Wimore and Williams could stay at the International Space Station (ISS) until later in the summer.

Scientists and engineers are working through testing to better understand and resolve problems that occurred during Starliner's launch and flight last month, including some misfiring thrusters and helium leaks. The testing is expected to conclude by the end of the week.

"I think we're really working to try to follow the data and see when's the earliest that we could target for undocking and landing," said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. "I think some of the data suggest optimistically maybe it's by the end of July, but we'll just follow the data each step at a time and at the right time figure out when the right undock opportunity is."

Though teams are looking to have Wimore and Williams depart from the space station before a crew turnover in mid-August, Starliner has been deemed safe to return to Earth at any time in an emergency.

Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams check in from space

Speaking in a separate news conference Wednesday streaming live from the ISS, Wilmore and Williams said they're "not complaining" about spending more time away from Earth.

"We are having a great time here on ISS," Williams said. "Butch and I have been up here before, and it feels like coming back home. It feels good to float around, it feels good to be in space and work up here with the International Space Station team. It's great to be up here, so I'm not complaining, Butch isn't complaining that we're here for a couple extra weeks."

Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, wearing Boeing spacesuits, 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.
Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, wearing Boeing spacesuits, 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.

And while the idea of being up in space longer than initially planned may sound scary to some, Wilmore and Williams are confident in Starliner, its team and their ability to get back home safely.

"We're absolutely confident (it'll get us back safe)," Wilmore said.

'Let's put some fire in this rocket': Crewed Boeing Starliner finally launches from Florida

When will the Starliner return to Earth?

Starliner's return to Earth has been repeatedly delayed since its initial planned reentry no later than a week after launch. It was then pushed to no earlier than June 18, then June 22, then June 25.

Now, Starliner and its crew aren't expected back until the end of July at the earliest.

The changes were partially to better prepare the Starliner crew for the "long-term goal of having it perform a six-month docked mission at the space station," Stich said in an announcement in June. NASA also later mentioned spacewalks, data collection and further testing as reasons for the delay.

“We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process,” Stich said in an update June 21. “We are letting the data drive our decision-making relative to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking."

When it is time for Starliner to return, it will land in New Mexico. Starliner will "descend under parachutes to land in the desert grounds of White Sands," according to Boeing. After the ship slows to about 4 mph, airbags attached to the bottom will deploy and soften its landing.

"The landing will mark the first time an American capsule has touched down on land with astronauts aboard," the company said in the release.

"I feel confident that if we had to, if there was a problem with ISS, we could get in our spacecraft and we could undock, talk to our team and figure out the best way to come home," Williams said in the virtual conference on Wednesday. "We've practiced a lot, so I have a feeling, I have a real good feeling in my heart that this spacecraft will bring us home no problem."

What is the Starliner crew doing in space?

What have the astronauts been doing all that extra time in space? Quite a lot, actually, starting right from launch.

"Launch was spectacular, I mean truly amazing," said Wilmore, noting that the spacecraft performed "unbelievably well" and with "amazing" precision.

The second day after launch, Wilmore said, the loss of function in two RCS jets made handling noticeably different, but the pair had practiced and been certified for manual control. They manually took over the ship for about an hour while teams on the ground troubleshot and got the jets back.

Once arriving at ISS, the two integrated in with the exiting crew. They are fully certified for all aspects of life aboard the space station, said Wilmore, including spacewalks, operating technology and maintenance, which they have done "a lot of."

"That's part of living here: You've got to keep that space station going," Wilmore said.

The two have also gotten to participate in a lot of scientific experimentation, according to WIlliams. From gene sequencing to using a 3D-printed moon microscope, they are keeping busy as temporary members of the ISS crew. More testing will be done on Starliner's functions and how to optimize them before, during and after undocking as well.

Starliner launches after delays

Wilmore and Williams launched into space on June 5 after several last-minute scrubs delayed the plans.

The inaugural crewed flight of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, meant to compete with the likes of Elon Musk's SpaceX spacecraft, was waylaid by a series of technical problems. It began on May 6, the original launch date, when trouble with a valve in the rocket's upper stage forced the mission to be scrubbed.

The team was able to replace the valve, but then engineers encountered another obstacle: a small helium leak in Starliner's service module. That issue caused additional delays until it finally lifted off.

Additional helium leaks in the Starliner's propulsion system were found after launch. During a media teleconference in late June, Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said five leaks had been discovered since Starliner docked at ISS.

The valve that malfunctioned during launch also did not come back online when the crew test-fired the spacecraft's thrusters. The crew did not try to test-fire the defective valve and they don't plan to use it during the return flight "out of an abundance of caution," Stich said.

Still, the craft safely navigated to the space station, docking autonomously the next afternoon on the forward-facing port of the station's Harmony module.

Contributing: Eric Lagatta, Jonathan Limehouse and Natalie Neysa Alund

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Starliner's Butch Wilmore, Sunita Williams give update from space