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Why NASA astronauts are delayed at the space station after Boeing Starliner launch

When two veteran NASA astronauts test-fly a new Boeing capsule, they expected to return home from the International Space Station within about a week.

Three weeks have passed, but Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams believe NASA and Boeing have worked out the hardware issues that arose along the way. 

Three potential landing dates were canceled and their return flights were delayed. On Friday, officials said there was no rush to send them home and that additional testing would be done first. “I want to be clear that Butch and Suni are not stuck in space,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA's commercial crew program.

Stich said astronauts could use the capsule if there was an emergency on the space station and they needed to escape quickly. The long test flight is the first flight with astronauts. Boeing finally participates in SPACEX and participates in the crew to the NASA Space Station. 

Why was the Starliner's return flight delayed?

When the flight was delayed, NASA said it needed more time to analyze a problem with the spacecraft's propulsion system, which is used to steer the flight. The propulsion system is attached to the capsule but will not be returned to Earth for testing - it will be ejected and burned up immediately upon entry into the atmosphere. 

The space agency also said it did not want the mission to collide with a spacewalk, but Monday's spacewalk was aborted after water leaked from the astronauts' spacesuits while they were still in the orbital laboratory. A spacewalk scheduled for Tuesday has been postponed until the end of July while the leak is thoroughly investigated.

What issue is being investigated?

Five of the capsule’s 28 thrusters went down during docking, as the capsule closed in on the space station. All but one thruster was restarted, and they worked during a later test firing, NASA said. The authorities suspect that the heat of all the actions of the charger during the mooring caused the closure. 

A defective engine has been disconnected. Stich said more testing of the engines on the ground would be done before setting a return date.

The capsule launched on June 5 with one small helium leak, but by the time it reached the space station there were four more leaks. The helium was used to apply pressure on the engine fuel, and the defective rubber seal was suspected of jurisdiction. Officials say that helium supply is large, and that Boeing is stable, not anxious leakage. 

“We understand these issues for a safe return,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing program manager. “We don't understand these problems well enough to solve them permanently. »

And after? 

Stich said testing the engine in the New Mexico desert would take a few weeks. Officials initially said the capsule could stay on the space station for 45 days due to the batteries on board, but they said Friday that duration could be extended.

Wilmore and Williams have been pitching in with chores and research at the space station, along with their duties checking out systems on the Boeing capsule. Both previously spent time at the space station. NASA said the space station had enough supplies for the two men and seven long-time residents.