Thruster Problems Threaten Boeing’s Starliner Spacecraft: Astronauts Await Risky Return Home

Houston, Texas – NASA managers are closely monitoring Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft for potential issues before allowing it to depart from the International Space Station. The focus is on ensuring that the spacecraft’s control thrusters are functioning well enough to safely guide the crew back to Earth.

The astronauts aboard the Starliner spacecraft, on its first crew test flight launched on June 5, expressed confidence in flying back to Earth in case of an emergency. However, concerns arose when five of the 28 reaction control system thrusters malfunctioned as the spacecraft approached the space station last month. The flight software disabled these thrusters due to overheating and a loss of thrust.

NASA astronaut Suni Williams, serving as Starliner’s pilot, emphasized the importance of the thrusters being able to perform for a successful deorbit burn. While these small thrusters are not directly involved in the burn itself, they play a crucial role in orienting the spacecraft correctly for the maneuver.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has faced years of delays and setbacks, making this test flight a significant milestone. As part of NASA’s commercial crew program, Starliner is set to become the second human-rated commercial crew capsule alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. However, resolving the thruster problems and helium leaks on Starliner is vital before proceeding with operational crew rotation missions.

Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner program manager, highlighted the ongoing investigation into the helium leaks and thruster issues on the service module. Over 30 actions have been identified to address these issues, with plans to complete them by the end of the week. NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Steve Stich, emphasized the need to thoroughly understand all aspects of the spacecraft before committing to the deorbit process.

Despite the challenges faced during this test flight, the commercial crew program benefits from having multiple vehicles available for returning crew safely. Both Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon offer options for transporting astronauts to and from the space station. Currently, the plan is for Williams and Starliner’s commander, Butch Wilmore, to return to Earth on the Starliner spacecraft, pending further assessments and data analysis.

Overall, the careful evaluation of Starliner’s thrusters and systems underscores the priority placed on crew safety and mission success in space exploration. As the collaboration between NASA and commercial partners continues, the hope is to address any issues effectively and advance towards more frequent crew missions to the International Space Station.