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Boeing mess again? Starliner return delayed due to helium leaks, Sunita Williams and fellow astronaut await in the space station

Two astronauts, Indian-origin Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore went to ISS using Boeing Starliner on 6th June.

On 21st July, Boeing announced that the scheduled return of Starliner spacecraft from the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed further to at least early July. Two astronauts, Indian-origin Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore went to ISS using Boeing Starliner on 6th June.

The astronauts were scheduled to return to Earth within a week. However, due to a series of helium leaks in the spacecraft’s propulsion system, the return was delayed multiple times. By 18th June, five such leaks were found since the spacecraft docked at the ISS. Adding to the reasons for the delay in the return, this time it has been postponed for two scheduled spacewalks and continued assessments of reported issues on the spacecraft.

The mission was Starliner’s maiden mission after a decade-long wait of development and errors. Notably, the launch was also briefly delayed due to helium leaks and a malfunctioning valve on the rocket. Though the issue was said to be resolved, it seems that the matter persisted and continued to cause delays in the return of the spacecraft.

The two spacewalks are scheduled for 2nd July. NASA and Boeing have said that the astronauts would not return until after those scheduled spacewalks are completed. These spacewalks were scheduled for 24th June but were postponed as the spacesuit malfunctioned impacting the return of the astronauts. Notably, initially, the spacewalk was supposed to happen on 14th June but it was delayed due to a spacesuit discomfort issue. Then it was postponed on 24th June as well.

Boeing in a statement said that though the astronauts were scheduled to return within a week, there are ample supplies available for them to stay through mid-August. The company added that in case of an emergency, the spacecraft is cleared to leave the orbit and return to Earth.

Vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Starliner Program Mark Nappi said in a statement, “The crew’s feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and they know that every bit of learning we do on the Crew Flight Test will improve and sharpen our experience for future crews.”

He added, “Starliner is performing well in orbit while docked to the space station. We are strategically using the extra time to clear a path for some critical station activities while completing readiness for Butch and Suni’s return on Starliner and gaining valuable insight into the system upgrades we will want to make for post-certification missions.”

Boeing was given contract to build Starliner for USD 4.6 billion but due to delayes, the company has lost USD 1.5 Billion developing the spacecraft.

Boeing aircraft suffer mishap after mishap, non-stop

In the January 2024 Alaska Airlines ‘door falling off mid-air’ incident, the US National Transportation Safety Board found that four key bolts, designed to hold the door securely in place, were not fitted.

Following the mid-air blowout, Alaska Airlines grounded all of its 65 Boeing 737-MAX 9 aircraft for inspection. A day after the Alaska Airlines incident, the United States air aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered airlines to temporarily ground more than 170 Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft for “immediate inspections” following the Alaska Airlines incident. Since then, dozens of incidents involving Boeing aircraft have been reported.

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