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Starliner Delays to a Drill Gone Awry: NASA’s Eventful Week on the ISS

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Continued problems with the Boeing Starliner led to a list of unplanned events that plagued the International Space Station last week. Along with a canceled spacewalk and a significant emergency that wasn’t, NASA ISS flight controllers had their hands full in the last half of the week.

Starliner Should Have Been Home By Now
The problematic Boeing Starliner Crewed Flight Test, which saw aborted launches on May 6th and June 1st, finally launched to the ISS on June 5th. After analyzing a “small” helium leak that was in part responsible for previous delays, engineers determined that the vehicle was safe to fly without repairs. Engineers said the spacecraft had significant reserves of the gas, more than enough to conduct the flight. Helium controls Starliner’s 28 reaction control system thrusters, allowing it to maneuver in orbit. The ability of Starliner to maneuver in orbit is particularly critical during both docking and undocking with the ISS, as well as properly orienting the ship to deorbit during the reentry phase safely.

Upon approaching the ISS on June 6th, the Starliner’s docking was delayed over an hour as five control thrusters failed to fire as expected. Ground controllers eventually worked around the issue and managed to get four of the five working correctly. Starliner finally docked with the ISS at 3:20 p.m. with one thruster remaining out of service. Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams safely transferred to the ISS following docking and joined the crew of seven already on board.

While Starliner remains docked to the ISS, Wilmore and Williams will continue to assess the Starliner’s performance and condition, as well as assist the rest of the ISS crew with other unrelated mission experiments.

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According to a June 10th NASA news release, NASA and Boeing engineers are now looking at five helium leaks. Astronauts stopped the leaks, at least while the Starliner remains docked, by closing thruster manifolds, however the leaks are likely to resume when Starliner begins its voyage home. Engineers are also evaluating an oxidizer isolation valve in the service module that is not properly closed. Unlike the inoperable thrusters, the oxidizer isolation valve issue was not resolved during a pre-docking checkout. It will remain closed for the remainder of the mission while ground teams continue to evaluate its data signatures. The crew module propulsion valves, part of an independent system that steers the capsule in the last phase of flight before landing, were also successfully cycled pre-docking, and all those valves are performing as designed.

All of Starliner’s new technical problems have resulted in added delays to the mission schedule. Starliner was originally set to undock from the ISS and return its crew to Earth after nine days in space on June 14th. However, Starliner’s problems have resulted in the crew’s journey home now being twice more delayed, first rescheduled for June 18th and now June 22nd, almost doubling the time spent in orbit outlined in the original flight plan.

Addressing the delays, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stitch said, “We are continuing to understand the capabilities of Starliner to prepare for the long-term goal of having it perform a six-month docked mission at the space station. The crew will perform additional hatch operations to better understand its handling, repeat some ‘safe-haven’ testing, and assess piloting using the forward window.”

Unlike all other US-launched manned missions to date, the Starliner will not splash down in the ocean but land in the US’s Southwestern Desert utilizing parachutes and airbags. Russia’s Soyuz missions have been landing in the same manner for a number of years.

This is not a good time for Boeing to have such problems with its products. Even though Boeing utilizes a separate division to manufacture is aircraft, the company is receiving a lot of scrutiny for what many see as a substandard manufacturing and engineering process. Though awarded twice as much by NASA as rival SpaceX to develop a crew module, Boeing remains far behind schedule in getting the Starliner operational under its Commercial Crew Contract. SpaceX, by contrast has had an operational crew module for four years.

The Emergency That Wasn’t
On Wednesday night, NASA somehow managed to inadvertently air about fifteen minutes’ worth of radio traffic from an emergency exercise between controllers and astronauts on the International Space Station. The unexpected scenario quickly fueled alarm and concern among space enthusiasts worldwide, and some media outlets quickly sprang into action, proclaiming a crisis aboard the ISS.

NASA’s official ISS YouTube livestream was interrupted at 6:28 p.m. ET by an unidentified woman who seemed to be an on-call NASA flight surgeon. Stuck in traffic somewhere, the doctor was giving medical treatment directions to the astronauts from her cell phone, relayed to the ISS by NASA. The situation seemed to involve a medical emergency in which a commander aboard the International Space Station (ISS) was suffering from severe decompression sickness.

Thousands of listeners on the internet heard the doctor advising the ISS crew on emergency medical procedures. “Check his pulse one more time,” the speaker instructed, suggesting the afflicted astronaut be placed in a suit filled with pure oxygen. “Any action would be ‘best effort treatment’ and better than doing nothing,” she emphasized.

The speaker provided a grim outlook on the situation, stating, “Unfortunately, the prognosis for the Commander is relatively tenuous.” Her concern deepened as she mentioned, “I am concerned that there are some severe DCS [decompression sickness] hits,” urging the crew to act quickly.

In a surprising twist, the speaker referenced a hospital in San Fernando, Spain, equipped with hyperbaric treatment facilities, implying the possibility of an emergency evacuation from the ISS.

A little more than an hour later, NASA, realizing that the exercise had inadvertently been broadcast, took to X and other media platforms to clarify that the scenario was not real. NASA said the ISS crew members were all safely asleep at the time, and the event had been part of a routine training exercise.

Space Walk Scuttled
NASA astronauts Tracy C. Dyson and Matt Dominick were scheduled to exit the ISS’s Quest airlock at 8:00 a.m. EDT Thursday morning to complete a spacewalk. The spacewalk was to allow astronauts to remove a faulty radio electronics box from a communications antenna on the starboard truss of the space station.
The pair was also tasked with collecting samples for analysis to understand the ability of microorganisms to survive and reproduce on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory.

Thursday’s spacewalk was scuttled at the last minute, with NASA describing the reason only as “a spacesuit discomfort issue”. According to a NASA blog, the spacesuits had been “fit checked” on May 30th, so the exact reason for the newly discovered “discomfort issue” wasn’t exactly clear.

As of this writing, the next spacewalk is scheduled for Monday, June 24th, and will again focus on removing the faulty electronics box.

The Boeing Starliner remains docked at the ISS at least until June 22, as engineers continue to sort out problems with the thruster system. [Photo by NASA TV]
The Boeing Starliner remains docked at the ISS at least until June 22, as engineers continue to sort out problems with the thruster system. [Photo by NASA TV]

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