Boeing Starliner return delayed again for spacewalks, study of spacecraft issues

Boeing and NASA are once again "adjusting" the return home of two astronauts from the International Space Station on the Starliner spacecraft.

Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore were scheduled to stay at the ISS for just a week after docking there June 6. Now they aren't expected to make the trip back to Earth until at least early July, following two scheduled spacewalks and continued assessments of reported issues on the spacecraft, Boeing announced in a June 21 update.

The space organizations have not announced a new return date after most recently saying the astronuats might come back Tuesday or Wednesday.

Here's what we know.

Starliner's return delayed for spacewalks, review of spacecraft issues

Moving the Starliner's undocking and landing from Wednesday deconflicts with "a series of planned (ISS) spacewalks while allowing mission teams time to review propulsion system data," the aerospace company said in the update.

The spacewalks were scheduled for Monday and July 2, NASA and Boeing said, meaning the astronauts wouldn't return until after those were complete. The spacewalk that was supposed to happen Monday was canceled following a spacesuit issue. NASA has not yet said how that will impact the planned spacewalk schedule or if it will further delay the astronauts' return.

USA TODAY contacted Boeing, who referred questions to be asked to NASA. USA TODAY contacted NASA on Monday morning but has not yet received a response.

The crew is also reviewing some issues with the Starliner spacecraft.

“We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said in the update. “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."

Stitch also said an "agency-level review" would be necessary due to the duration of the mission. He compared it to what was done ahead of NASA's SpaceX Demo-2 return after it spent two months in orbit.

US spacewalk 90 canceled

Although NASA and Boeing moved the Starliner's return to accommodate the spacewalks, U.S. spacewalk 90 was scrapped Monday morning due to "a water leak in the service and cooling umbilical unit on NASA astronaut Tracy C. Dyson’s spacesuit," according to NASA.

The water leak was noticed after Dyson and astronaut Mike Barratt set their suits to battery power Monday morning, NASA said.

The spacewalk was initially scheduled for June 14, but that attempt was delayed due to a "spacesuit discomfort issue."

The spacewalk is planned to "remove a faulty electronics box from a communications antenna on the starboard truss of the space station," NASA said. The astronauts also would have collected samples for analysis to "understand the ability of microorganisms to survive and reproduce on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory," according to the government agency.

Are the astronauts stuck in space?

While Wilmore and Williams' return home continues to be delayed, Boeing said plenty of supplies remain for the astronauts and the station's schedule is "relatively open through mid-August." In case of an emergency on the ISS, the Starliner is cleared to leave orbit and return to Earth, the company added.

Boeing added the crew is "not pressed for time to leave" as the astronauts continue to help with station operations as needed and are completing NASA's add-on in-flight objectives.

Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore speak to NASA officials during a live streamed event on Monday, June 10.
Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore speak to NASA officials during a live streamed event on Monday, June 10.

“The crew’s feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and they know that every bit of learning we do on the Crew Flight Test will improve and sharpen our experience for future crews,” Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Starliner Program, said in the June 21 release.

“Starliner is performing well in orbit while docked to the space station,” Stich said. “We are strategically using the extra time to clear a path for some critical station activities while completing readiness for Butch and Suni’s return on Starliner and gaining valuable insight into the system upgrades we will want to make for post-certification missions.”

Boeing Starliner issues, including helium leaks

Helium leaks and a malfunctioning thruster valve hampered the Starliner's launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 5. These same issues seem to be still affecting the spacecraft weeks later.

There's been a series of helium leaks in the Starliner's propulsion system, Stich said during a media teleconference on June 18. So far, five leaks have been found since the Starliner has been docked at the ISS, he added.

"The path going forward is to continue to look at the helium system to try to understand what's happening, again look at simulations for the remainder of the flight… and then the operational techniques to manage the helium system," Stich said.

The defective thruster valve, which is still offline as of June 15, is another problem but Stich said the crew did not plan to use it during the return flight "out of an abundance of caution." The belief is that the valve went offline due to the extreme heat generated while the thruster system was firing "in rapid succession" to keep the Starliner on course with the space station, according to Stich.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASA astronauts remain in space as crew reviews issues with Starliner