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NASA extends Starliner mission in orbit

Boeing Starliner spacecraft prepares to dock with the International Space Station for the first time on Thursday, June 6, 2024. (NASA via AP)
Boeing Starliner spacecraft prepares to dock with the International Space Station for the first time on Thursday, June 6, 2024. (NASA via AP)

NASA says the planned splash down of its new Starliner crew capsule is now set for June 18th. Astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams will continue to check out the vehicle, which the space agency says has five helium leaks. One additional job will reunite Sunita Williams with a classmate of NASA is astronaut class of 1998. Tracy Caldwell-Dyson is a fellow "Penguin,” which is the nickname of the class. Caldwell, Williams, Starliner commander Barry Wilmore and astronaut Matthew Dominick will perform a “fit check” for a larger crew inside the new capsule. Wilmore and Williams flew aboard Starliner, which was boosted to orbit by an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket.

“Butch and Suni are doing great aboard station as ground teams continue digging into the details of Starliner’s on-orbit, rendezvous, and docked performance,” said Steve Stich, manager, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a Boeing press release. “We expected to do a lot of valuable learning on this test flight, and I am extremely proud of how the NASA and Boeing teams are working together to ensure we can safely execute the return portion of the mission.”

The extra time in orbit also means the Starliner crew will be able support the International Space Station crew as two of the astronauts perform a spacewalk outside the orbiting outpost. NASA has issues to deal with on Starliner. The list includes five jet thrusters on the capsule that were shut off before the final docking with ISS. Boeing said in a release that engineers also are evaluating a reaction control system (RCS) oxidizer isolation valve in the service module that is not properly closed. Various sizes of RCS thrusters use two self-igniting chemicals to create thrust to adjust the position or Starliner or send it on the trip through the atmosphere at the end of the mission.

Boeing was hired alongside Elon Musk’s SpaceX a decade ago to ferry NASA’s astronauts to and from the space station. The space agency wanted two competing U.S. companies for the job in the wake of the space shuttles’ retirement, paying $4.2 billion to Boeing and just over half that to SpaceX, which refashioned the capsule it was using to deliver station supplies.

SpaceX launched astronauts into orbit in 2020, becoming the first private business to achieve what only three countries — Russia, the U.S. and China — had mastered. It has taken nine crews to the space station for NASA and three private groups for a Houston company that charters flights.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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