Two NASA astronauts are stuck on the ISS – how stranded are they?

By John Mercury July 11, 2024

One of the NASA astronauts stuck on the International Space Station (ISS) for over a month has said she has a “really good feeling in my heart” that their spacecraft will “bring us home”.

Sunita “Suni” Williams, the pilot of the Starliner, and Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore have addressed the media for the first time since their spacecraft began experiencing problems which have caused their mission to be extended indefinitely.

The veteran NASA astronauts blasted off on 5 June, and were meant to stay in orbit for eight days after docking on the ISS.

However, problems with the Boeing Starliner’s propulsion system mean its return to Earth has been repeatedly delayed.

Ms Williams told reporters on Wednesday: “I have a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem.”

Many of Starliner’s thrusters in the propulsion system overheated when fired and leaks of helium, used to pressurise the thrusters, appear to be connected to how frequently they are used, according to NASA’s commercial crew manager Steve Stich.

This week, NASA and Boeing are trying to duplicate the Starliner’s thruster problems on a brand new unit at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Mr Wilmore told reporters: “We trust that the tests that we’re doing are the ones we need to do to get the right answers, to give us the data that we need to come back.”

The astronaut had said earlier: “We’re absolutely confident… That mantra you’ve heard, failure is not an option.”

During their extended stay on the ISS, the astronauts were forced to take shelter in the spacecraft when a Russian satellite exploded nearby.

If they needed to evacuate, Starliner may have struggled to get away from the space station.

Suni Williams (front left) and Butch Wilmore (front right) pose with fellow astronauts as they enter the ISS on 6 June. Credit: NASA TV
Image:
Suni Williams (front left) and Butch Wilmore (front right) as they entered the ISS. Pic: NASA TV


How stuck are they?

Boeing insists the astronauts are “not stuck” and says “there’s no increased risk when we decide to bring Suni and Butch back to Earth,” according to Mark Nappi, manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.

Starliner is able to spend 45 days docked on the ISS, or up to 72 days at a push, relying on backup systems.

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Watch Boeing’s Starliner crewed launch

If the astronauts still couldn’t use it to come back to Earth, they could hitch a lift with other crews up there.

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is due to take three people back to Earth in September and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Capsule should return in August.

Butch and Suni aren’t in “any danger”, according to Mr Nappi and also aren’t even very stuck by space station standards.

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Last year, NASA’s Frank Rubio landed back on Earth after the longest continuous spaceflight by an American, spending a whopping 371 days in orbit.

His return was delayed for six months because of a coolant leak on his spacecraft.

Between 1994 and 1995, Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent a record-breaking 437 days on the Russian-owned Mir space station, although he always intended to be up there for a long time.

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Starliner delays

Starliner’s problems come after years of delays and failed launches.

In 2014, NASA asked both SpaceX and Boeing to develop commercial crew capsules, but while SpaceX successfully started shuttling astronauts in 2020, this trip was Boeing’s first crewed launch.

Boeing’s losses on the Starliner programme are believed to be around $1.5bn (£1.2bn).

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