Starliner capsule. Credits: ESA/NASA-S.Cristoforetti

Starliner First Crewed Return Delayed Again by Boeing and NASA

Boeing and NASA delayed the return of the first crewed Starliner to early July to assess issues detected during docking with the ISS

On Friday 22, in an official update, Boeing and NASA ruled out June 26th for the return of the Starliner spacecraft. The capsule will thus remain docked to the ISS until at least early July. This will postpone the parachute and airbag-assisted landing in the southwestern United States, originally scheduled for June 14th. 

An aurora flows below Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, docked to the front port of the Harmony module, while the International Space Station flies 266 miles above the Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia. Credit: NASA Johnson.
An aurora flows below Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, docked to the front port of the Harmony module above the Indian Ocean. Credits: NASA Johnson

According to the statement, this decision allows engineers to assess the problems detected during the rendezvous and the docking with the ISS. The major concerns involve five small helium leaks affecting the capsule’s propulsion system and failures of five out of 28 reaction control system (RCS) thrusters.

Despite these issues, Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, stated that the Starliner capsule is performing well during its docking with the ISS. He emphasized that NASA still has confidence in the Starliner project, reinforcing the importance of resolving these problems to ensure the mission’s success and the safety of future crewed missions​​​​​​.


Recent delays

Friday night’s decision is the latest in a series of recent delays. After the liftoff from Launch Complex 41 at Kennedy Space Center on June 5, the crew capsule docked with the ISS on June 6, and its return to Earth was planned to be after one week.

Liftoff of Boeing's Starliner Crew Flight Test. Credits: United Launch Alliance
Liftoff of Boeing’s Starliner Crew Flight Test. Credits: United Launch Alliance

However, due to the rise of problems and a spacewalk planned for June 13, NASA and Boeing first delayed the return until June 18. Subsequently, another delay was announced, with the new reentry date planned for June 26. According to Boeing’s vice president, Mark Nappi, that  postponement could be considered as  “an incredible opportunity to spend more time at the station and perform more tests which provide invaluable data unique to our position.”

Despite these delays, the mission has provided valuable data. During their extended stay, astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams conducted additional tests and evaluations, which are crucial for future missions. ​​​ Additionally, technical issues such as helium leaks and thruster performance were monitored.

As announced during the Friday night update, the vehicle won’t leave the ISS until July, with another spacewalk scheduled for July 2​​, which is uncertain after the scrub of the extra-vehicular activity (EVA) planned for June 24. Astronauts Tracy Dyson and Mike Barratt had to cancel their mission outside the ISS due to a water leak in the cooling unit of one of the spacesuits. The extended mission duration is seen as beneficial for both other tests and for supporting the ISS crew with ongoing operations.


The Boeing Starliner first crewed test

Boeing’s Starliner Crew Flight Test, featuring the “Calypso” capsule, is the first crewed flight of the Starliner under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The vehicle was selected in 2014, together with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to ensure a reliable access to low earth orbit after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. To date, the Dragon capsule has carried out all the first six crewed missions signed under the CCP. Considering the new issues, it is not clear when Boeing will be able to carry out its first official mission of the program.

A view from a window on the SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom crew ship shows Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew ship after it had docked to the Harmony module's forward port on the International Space Station for the company's Orbital Flight Test-2 mission. Credit: NASA Johnson.
A view from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner docked to the Harmony module’ during Orbital Flight Test-2 mission. Credits: NASA Johnson

The current mission aims to demonstrate the spacecraft’s capability to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) safely and efficiently. In addition, tests conducted during the journey on the ISS are crucial for confirming the capsule’s functionality and reliability in various scenarios.

This is the third flight of the Starliner and the first with a crew, after significant delays and setbacks in development which occurred during earlier flights.  

The first mission, the Orbital Flight Test in 2019, failed to reach the ISS because of an issue with the spacecraft’s Mission Elapsed Time clock, which caused incorrect thruster activation. The second attempt, Orbital Flight Test 2 in 2022, has been an overall success, with the spacecraft docking at the ISS and landing back on Earth, satisfying the requirements for a future crewed launch.

However, the liftoff, initially planned for summer 2023, was delayed due to issues with the parachute system and batteries, and the discovery of flammable components. The delayed reentry is thus the last in a long series of obstacles for the US second Commercial Crew spacecraft.


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Giovanni Odonti

Giovanni Odonti

Fifth-year high school student, passionate about the aerospace sector, innovation and artificial intelligence.

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