Starliner to remain docked to the ISS into July – with no new departure date

If it's Boeing, it isn't going joke gets a bit real for 'nauts

Boeing's Starliner will remain docked at the International Space Station (ISS) for a while longer as engineers analyze data from the vehicle's propulsion system.

After repeated delays, the spacecraft was set to leave the outpost on June 25 and land at White Sands, New Mexico.

However, at the end of last week, mission managers opted to postpone the undocking once again without specifying a new date. Two spacewalks from the ISS are planned for June 24 and July 2, meaning the next departure date could be in July or even slip as far back as August.

According to NASA: "The crew is not pressed for time to leave the station since there are plenty of supplies in orbit, and the station’s schedule is relatively open through mid-August."

The Starliner will need to depart the ISS before August without some additional engineering analysis. During the post-docking news conference, Steve Stich, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager, gave a figure of 45 days for the docked duration, meaning a docking would have to occur during the latter half of July at the very latest.

The delay will remove any potential conflict with the upcoming spacewalks and give engineers more time to review data from the Starliner's propulsion system. The vehicle has been bedeviled by helium leaks and thruster problems. Once the Starliner commences its return to Earth, the service module where the problematic hardware is located will be discarded, depriving engineers of an avenue of investigation.

Stich said, "We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process.

"We are letting the data drive our decision-making relative to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking. Additionally, given the duration of the mission, it is appropriate for us to complete an agency-level review, similar to what was done ahead of NASA's SpaceX Demo-2 return after two months on orbit, to document the agency's formal acceptance on proceeding as planned."

The Starliner has been cleared for use as a return vehicle in the event of an emergency.

In the highly unlikely event that NASA opts not to use the Starliner as a crew return vehicle, the agency has a few options open to it. One could be to remove two crew members from the next Crew Dragon launch – currently set for the latter half of August – or use an upcoming Soyuz, although the latter requires custom seat liners for the crew.

During the June 18 teleconference Stich confirmed that the team had already cleared the vehicle for a contingency or emergency return, and added "I think we will work through each of these issues and we will get to a point where we can bring Butch and Suni back in Starliner."

After all, what's a few more days in space compared to the colossal delays already racked up by the Starliner program? ®

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