Astronaut Sunita Williams’ return from space postponed indefinitely due to glitch in Boeing Starliner

Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams may have to stay longer with her fellow crew members on the International Space Station (ISS), as the Boeing Starliner spacecraft they were traveling in continues to have glitches. The return was earlier scheduled for June 26, but the return trip has been postponed indefinitely as NASA and Boeing engineers continue to investigate technical problems.

The Boeing Starliner has suffered several setbacks on its maiden mission, including a launch delay due to a malfunction of the Atlas 5 rocket and a countdown computer. However, the biggest concerns are about helium leaks and thruster failures, which were discovered after it rendezvoused and docked with the ISS.

According to CBS News, NASA and Boeing have opted to extend Starliner’s stay at the ISS for extensive analysis and testing. The space agency plans to set a new landing target date after a formal re-entry readiness review.

Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, emphasized the cautious approach: “We are letting the data drive our decision-making related to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking.” Stich also highlighted the need for a thorough review process similar to previous missions, such as SpaceX’s Demo-2, which did not face such complications.

The challenges arise primarily from Starliner’s service module, which houses critical systems such as thrusters and solar sails. These systems are vital for maneuvering and power, but the module is removed before re-entry, complicating investigation of technical issues after the mission.

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Officials say the astronauts are not stranded and can be evacuated and returned.

Despite the setbacks, officials confirmed that the astronauts were not in immediate danger because Starliner commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and co-pilot Sunita Williams are allowed to dock and return immediately if a malfunction or other problem with the station requires them to return immediately. The astronauts are not stranded in orbit, CBS News reported, citing officials.

“We are strategically using the extra time to clear the way for some critical station activities, while also completing preparations for Butch and Suni’s return to Starliner,” Stich said, according to the report.

The Starliner mission, already four years behind schedule, faced delays before launch due to problems with the Atlas 5 rocket and countdown procedures. After launch, additional helium leaks and operational anomalies further extended the troubleshooting phase on orbit.

Although NASA aims to certify Starliner for regular crew rotations to the ISS by early next year, uncertainties remain about meeting this deadline amid ongoing technical evaluations.