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Boeing Would Like Everyone to Please Stop Saying the Starliner ISS Test Is a Bust

Considering all the additional tests the spacecraft has had to undergo while docked to the ISS, it’s also not clear how the program will advance once the test flight comes to an end. Starliner’s first crewed flight has exposed several issues with the spacecraft that need resolving. Will NASA require Boeing to spend more time fixing its capsule, and will a second test flight be necessary? These are issues that NASA and its partner have yet to address amidst a wave of bad press and public ridicule.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule launched atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket on June 5, carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the ISS. The spacecraft had a hard time docking at the space station after five of the spacecraft’s thrusters failed during its approach. Starliner also developed five helium leaks, one of which had been identified prior to its launch.

The mission was originally scheduled for eight days, but the crew’s return has been delayed several times while ground teams conduct tests on the vehicle and collect data before giving the green light for the astronauts to return to Earth. During a news conference on Friday, NASA officials revealed that the mission does not have a return date yet, pending the completion of testing. They’re also very upset about claims that the astronauts are stuck on the ISS.

“Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, told reporters on Friday. Despite the thruster failure and helium leaks, NASA and Boeing insist that the spacecraft could fly the astronauts home at any time, and that those few extra weeks in orbit are to run tests that otherwise can’t be done on the ground.

“We understand these issues for a safe return,” Mark Nappi, Boeing program manager, said during the press briefing on Friday. “We don’t understand them enough to fix them permanently.” The Starliner currently docked to the ISS cannot be changed much as a result of the on-ground testing, but the data can inform future models of the spacecraft.

Engineers also are evaluating an RCS oxidizer isolation valve in the service module that’s not properly closed. An RCS, or Reaction Control System, uses thrusters for attitude control and steering, while the oxidizer isolation valve regulates the flow of oxidizer, which is essential for burning fuel in the thrusters.

It’s understandable that Boeing and NASA want to conduct tests on the vehicle, given that this is a test mission after all. But tests that continue to add up for weeks are a little concerning and suggest that Starliner may not be ready to be assigned as the second commercial spacecraft transporting astronauts to the ISS. NASA’s other commercial partner, SpaceX, has so far launched eight crews to the space station. Boeing, on the other hand, is yet to fulfill any of its six contractual flights as part of its $4.3 billion agreement with NASA.

Boeing previously launched two uncrewed flights to the ISS, which also suffered from a number of glitches. This is the vehicle’s first time carrying a crew to orbit, and years of delays have lead to anticipation, as well as some skepticism that the company can pull it off.

During the press briefing, Boeing’s Nappi told reporters that he goes through the Google alerts set for Starliner every morning and that it’s been “pretty painful to read.” “We’ve gotten a really good test flight…and it’s been viewed rather negatively,” he added. “We’re not stuck on the ISS. The crew is not in any danger. And there’s no increased risk when we decide to bring Suni and Butch back to Earth.”

It’s hardly a surprise that Nappi is pained by the Google alerts. Even before the Starliner fiasco, the company has been under scrutiny since the infamous incident earlier this year when a door blew out on a Boeing jet flown by Alaska Airlines. A few months later, the federal government said that Boeing had breached its 2021 agreement by failing to “design, implement, and enforce a compliance and ethics program to prevent and detect violations of the U.S. fraud laws throughout its operations.” Boeing is also under investigation for two fatal plane crashes that killed 346 people in 2017 and 2018.

The ongoing Starliner mishaps are only adding to the growing criticism of Boeing and raising concern regarding the company’s adherence to safety standards. Throughout it all, NASA has stuck by its commercial partner, at least publicly, and reassured the media that there’s nothing to worry about.

Starliner is certified to stay docked to the ISS for a maximum of 45 days during its current mission. The spacecraft may need to undergo recertification while in orbit, unless NASA and Boeing manage to wrap up the additional testing of Starliner before its deadline. It’s still not clear how the space agency decides to move forward following Starliner’s descent in the Utah desert.

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