Veteran NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore fielded reporters’ questions live from the International Space Station on Wednesday as they await further news about when they may be headed back to Earth after helium leaks and thruster failures have kept them and their Boeing Starliner capsule docked at the orbiting platform for over a month.

Boeing Starliner’s problem-plagued first crewed mission to the International Space Station, initially scheduled to last about 10 days, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 5, but NASA and Boeing officials shared news at an Earth-bound press conference later in the day that the capsule and its two-person crew are still weeks away from returning.

Astronauts speak from space

In the meantime, Williams and Wilmore report they are staying busy at the station, pitching in on science experiments, maintenance duties and staying in regular communication with Boeing and NASA engineers who are conducting tests of the problematic thrusters at NASA’s White Sands Testing Facility in New Mexico.

Both astronauts shared statements about their confidence that Starliner could safely return them to Earth and noted that this first crewed mission of the Boeing spacecraft is very much a test flight.

“I can tell you that this is the world of test,” Wilmore said. “This is a tough business that we’re in. Human space flight is not easy in any regime. There have been multiple issues with every spacecraft that’s ever been designed and that’s the nature of what we do. We’re gonna get the data that we need to help inform our decision so we make the right decisions.”

In this photo provided by NASA, a U.S. flag is displayed from a window of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft docked to the International Space Station on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. | NASA via Associated Press

When will Starliner return to Earth?

During the second Wednesday press conference, NASA and Boeing officials said 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 last month had begun at White Sands. 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.

NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said the current expectation is that testing could be wrapped up in time for Starliner and its crew to return near the end of July. In the meantime, engineers will continue work to try to pinpoint what led to the thruster failures.

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“We’re taking our time on the ground to go through all the data we have before we decide on the return opportunity,” Stich said. He noted the testing procedures are “not unusual for a new spacecraft” and said being able to use the ISS as a temporary hangar was allowing for extended ground-based analysis to “understand the spacecraft before we undock and return.”

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Both Stich and Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, noted that Starliner has been OK’d for use as an emergency return vehicle, should an unseen event at the space station lead to the need for an evacuation, and that the primary option is for Williams and Wilmore to return on the Boeing capsule. There are currently six spacecraft docked at the ISS, including Starliner, and two of them, the SpaceX Dragon and Russian Soyuz MS-25 crewship, are capable of carrying astronauts back to Earth in addition to Starliner.

Landing in Utah?

Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground was considered a primary return landing site at the beginning of Starliner’s mission, but it’s not clear whether the west desert location will still be at the top of the list for the capsule’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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