Sunita Williams may take several months to return to Earth, NASA is likely to extend the duration of the project

The Boeing Starliner project, which was expected to last just a few days, will now take longer as the first test with two astronauts is in limbo, with no announcement of the exact date of return to Earth. This means that Indian-origin Sunita Williams, who is stuck in space, may take a few months to return to Earth.

According to CNN report, NASA's Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich said that the US space agency is considering extending the duration of Starliner from 45 days to 90 days.

Officials have repeatedly indicated that the Starliner, which suffered a helium leak and thruster failures en route to the International Space Station in early June, would be safe enough to return astronauts such as Sunita “Suni” Williams and Butch Wilmore.

'No rush to return home': NASA

“We're just looking at the timeline to execute (the test in New Mexico) and then review the data,” NASA said in a briefing Friday. Stich said the process is a “long pole” that could determine a landing date.

“We're in no hurry to come home,” Stitch added.

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Part of this proposed extension is due to ground experiments that Boeing and NASA want to conduct in New Mexico to better understand why some of Starliner's thrusters unexpectedly failed during the first phase of its mission.

Both Stich and Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program, said engineers are still unsure about the cause of Starliner’s problems.

Nappi said one purpose of conducting ground tests while the spacecraft was in space was to find out why the thrusters failed.

Mark Nappi added: “So, if (the test in New Mexico) comes back and gives us all the answers, then we can just undock and come home.” He added, “If it comes back and says, 'Here's 80% of the solution. And if you just run another docked hot fire (test on Starliner in orbit), you'll get all the answers' – then we want (Starliner) to be there so we can get that information.”

Helium leak

In addition to the engine failure, several other helium leaks were discovered as the spacecraft approached the International Space Station. CNN reported that Starliner had several challenges with its service module, a cylindrical attachment at the bottom of the spacecraft that provides most of the spacecraft's power during flight.

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By design, the service module would not survive a return to Earth. As the Starliner spacecraft returns to the atmosphere, the module is jettisoned and destroyed, so researchers from Boeing and NASA decided to leave the ship safely docked with the space station while they worked to learn as much as possible about the issues that were causing the failure.

Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon

Boeing's challenges are more pronounced, especially compared to the Starliner program, CNN reports.

Crew Dragon, which is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program for astronaut transportation, made its first test flight in 2020 and has been making regular trips since then.

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SpaceX did not have the advantage of designing the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the back of its Cargo Dragon aircraft, which transported supplies to the International Space Station for years before its replacement began operating, while Boeing built the Starliner from scratch.

Nappi elaborated: “We have completed a very good test flight so far, and it is being looked at negatively.”

According to the latest update on the current space mission, Expedition 71 crew members packed up a US cargo craft on Friday, cleaned the International Space Station, researched future flight strategies, and performed eye exams.

What steps did NASA take?

NASA's Boeing Crew Flight Test crew spent the entire day recommissioning the Space Botany Laboratory. On its live blog, NASA said: “Robotics controllers are scheduled to separate the Cygnus space freighter from the Unity module on July 12 and release it into Earth orbit for disposal over the South Pacific Ocean, ending a five-and-a-half-month mission aboard the orbital lab.”

NASA flight engineer Matthew Dominick spent most of his time Friday moving trash and items inside Cygnus, with help from fellow NASA astronauts Jeanette Epps and Tracy Dyson. On Feb. 1, CanadaArm2 robotic arm grabbed Cygnus, which was carrying more than 8,200 pounds of science equipment and crew supplies.

Epps used standard medical imaging equipment found in an optometrist's office on Earth to look at Dyson's eyes. He examined Dyson's cornea, retina and lens to help flight surgeons understand and mitigate the effects of microgravity on the crew's vision.

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Earlier, Dyson collected and stored additional space station equipment for disposal. Throughout the day, NASA flight engineer Mike Barrett routed cables and modified communications systems within the Columbus laboratory module.

On Friday, Starliner commander and pilot Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams conducted space botany work at Kibo.

“NASA and Boeing continue to evaluate the performance of Starliner's propulsion system ahead of its return to Earth from the orbiting lab. NASA and Boeing leaders participated in a media teleconference today to discuss Starliner and station operations,” NASA said in the liveblog.

“NASA is now targeting the end of July for the next spacewalk outside the space station. This change allows teams on the ground to understand and resolve a water leak in the Service and Cooling Umbilical Unit, which forced an early termination of the spacewalk on Monday, June 24,” it added.

Flight Engineer Nikolai Chub practiced planetary spaceflight and robotic piloting techniques, while Flight Engineer Alexander Grebenkin spent the day inventorying medical kits and cleaning fans inside the Rassvet module. Station Commander Oleg Kononenko replaced thermal components in Roscosmos' life support hardware.

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