Boeing Starliner’s problem-plagued first crewed mission to the International Space Station, initially expected to last about 10 days, launched over two weeks ago, but representatives of NASA and Boeing shared news at a Friday press conference that the capsule and its two-person crew are still weeks away from returning to Earth.

But officials said describing the astronauts as stuck at the ISS is a misnomer.

“What we hope to do today is maybe clear up some information that’s been out there and any misunderstandings about the flight and our status,” said NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich during a press conference Friday afternoon. “I want to make it very clear that (NASA astronauts) Butch (Wilmore) and Suni (Williams) are not stranded in space. Our plan is to return them on Starliner and return them home at the right time. We have a little bit more work to do to get there for the final return but they’re safe on (the) space station, their spacecraft is working well and they’re enjoying their time on the space station.”

Stich said Boeing and NASA engineers are in the process of setting up ground-based tests of thrusters that are identical to the ones on Starliner’s service module that experienced failures during the capsule’s approach and docking procedures at the ISS earlier this month. Previous reports from NASA detailed that five of 28 maneuvering thrusters failed to perform as expected during Starliner’s docking at the space station on June 6. Engineers have also identified a total of five small helium leaks, some of which were detected before the spacecraft launched. Helium is used in the capsule’s thruster firing procedure. The issues have led to a series of delays for Starliner’s return flight.

On Friday, Stich said no additional issues have arisen since the last report and no further helium has leaked since astronauts shut down some systems while in the docking position. A test conducted on June 15 showed the leak rates on five manifolds had slowed from previous readings.

But questions remain about what exactly caused the service module thruster failures. Stich said a testing procedure is being devised at NASA’s White Sands Testing Facility that is likely to take at least a couple of weeks to complete.

While the service module is jettisoned before the Starliner capsule makes its return descent to Earth, the thrusters on the component are critical to properly align the spacecraft on its reentry path. Thrusters on the crew capsule have not shown any issues on the current mission, according to flight officials.

Both Stich and Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, stressed during the press conference that Starliner was capable of safely returning to Earth in its present condition but said there is an opportunity to “learn more” about the thruster issue through in-orbit and ground-based testing and the capsule can remain docked at the ISS without issue for a longer period of time. Neither Stich nor Nappi shared any target dates for Starliner’s return.

Stich offered further explanation of a stated 45-day limit on the Starliner’s onboard battery systems. He said that while the pre-flight limit is set at 45 days for the batteries, assessments show that the system is in optimum condition and the 45-day limit can be safely extended.

Emily Nelson, chief flight director for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said Williams and Wilmore have been kept busy while aboard the ISS, performing research and maintenance duties and are in regular contact with their families.

Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground was considered a primary return landing site at the beginning of the mission, which launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 5, but it’s not clear whether the west desert location will still be at the top of the list for Starliner’s return. Other possible landing sites include two targets in the vast White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and Willcox, Arizona, according to NASA. Edwards Air Force Base in California is available as a contingency landing site.

While a parachute-assisted ground landing is expected, the Starliner capsule is also capable of a water landing.

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Space exploration as a private sector endeavor

Back in 2014, NASA announced a pair of “groundbreaking” contracts, granted to Boeing and SpaceX, aiming to bring the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the orbiting ISS, a task that was assumed by Russia’s Roscosmos following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, back to the U.S.

Boeing’s long partnership with NASA and jumbo $4.2 billion contract, compared to SpaceX’s $2.6 billion, led many to believe early on that the legacy aircraft and aerospace company would outpace Elon Musk’s scrappy space startup and be first to the finish line in NASA’s new Commercial Crew Transportation Capability effort.

But a series of delays allowed SpaceX to leapfrog Boeing in the work to develop a new crew transport vehicle and in 2020, SpaceX’s Dragon 2 Crew Capsule became the first U.S.-launched spaceflight to carry astronauts to the ISS since the final, 13-day shuttle mission performed by Atlantis.

In May, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the Starliner test flight is a crucial step in NASA’s ongoing efforts to commercialize the business of space exploration, including the effort to replace the job of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

“This is all a part of our commercial activities,” Nelson said. “You’ve already seen commercial crew and cargo go to orbit with the Dragon and other cargo vehicles. This will give us that additional capacity because we always look for a backup.

“It’s a fixed-price contract. We share in the development costs but then the operation is a fixed-price contract. We’re doing that as we go to the moon as well.”

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Boeing’s long journey to space

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Boeing has had to overcome issues both within and without its Starliner program on the path to the first crewed launch earlier this month, while SpaceX has now completed nine crewed missions to the ISS with its Dragon capsule and has a 10th in progress.

An uncrewed Starliner test flight in 2019 exposed software and communications issues that combined to derail an attempt to dock with the space station and almost led to the crew ship’s destruction, per CBS News.

A second test flight in 2021 was scrubbed after engineers discovered corroded valves in the spacecraft’s propulsion system, pushing the next attempt to 2022. And while that flight was a success, potential problems with Starliner’s parachute lines were revealed as well as the need to replace about a mile of electrical tape that was found to be flammable.

Along the way, Boeing has had to navigate major issues in its commercial airliner division, including the tragic 737 Max plane crashes and, more recently, production and quality control issues that were highlighted when a Boeing plane flown by Alaska Airlines lost a door plug component in the passenger cabin during a flight.

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