NASA pushes Starliner return to July

Boeing Starliner astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams have stayed aboard the International Space Station nearly two weeks longer than scheduled, but they haven't overstayed their welcome. NASA Screengrab/UPI

June 22 (UPI) -- After numerous delays, NASA said Friday that the Starliner crew would return to Earth in July

The agency said in a blog post that it delayed Starliner's Tuesday departure from the International Space Station so it doesn't conflict with a series of planned ISS spacewalks.

The extra time also would afford Starliner astronauts Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Sunita "Suni" Williams more time to review the spacecraft's propulsions systems, according to the agency.

Wilmore and Williams have been on board the ISS for almost three weeks. The two were set to complete a full assessment of the spacecraft while docked to the ISS in less than a week, but mechanical issues and the need to collect more data lengthened their stay.

The astronauts, however, are no strangers to delays. Boeing's first crewed Starliner test flight finally got off the ground on June 5 after concerns such as helium system leaks pushed back the launch date multiple times.

"We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process," said NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich. "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.

Stich added that, given the duration of the mission, NASA will complete an agency-level review of the mission. NASA said it will share the details on the review at a later media briefing.

Wilmore and Williams are not overstaying their welcome, as there are plenty of supplies on board, and the ISS's schedule is fairly open through mid-August. The two also have contributed to regular station maintenance, scientific research and spacewalks .

"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," said Mark Nappi, Boeing vice president and Starliner program manager.

Mission managers are considering the dates for future return missions to the ISS after two planned space walks on Monday and July 2.

If all goes well, Boeing will have completed its first successful crewed mission for NASA, but the company has a long way to go to catch up with competitor and fellow NASA contractor SpaceX, which so far has completed 13 crewed missions.

SpaceX, meanwhile has back-to-back Starlink satellite launches set for 1:15 p.m. in Florida and 11:45 p.m. EDT Sunday in California. The former launch from Florida was delayed after a T-0 abort on June 14.