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Astronauts Downplay Worry as Mission Woes Extend Space Trip

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA - JUNE 05: Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 during NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test on June 05, 2024, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission is sending two astronauts to the International Space Station. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (Joe Raedle/Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty I)

(Bloomberg) -- NASA astronauts pressed into a longer-than-planned stay in space said they’re certain their Boeing Co. craft will return them safely to Earth despite a series of technical issues that have plagued the mission.

“I feel confident that if we had to — if there was a problem with the International Space Station — we’d get in our spacecraft and we can undock, talk to our team and figure out the best way to come home,” Sunita “Suni” Williams, a NASA astronaut and pilot of the mission, told reporters Wednesday during a live webcast from space.

“I have a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem,” Williams added.

The comments underscored the lingering uncertainty over the Starliner mission after multiple helium leaks and failures of the capsule’s thrusters — small engines used to maneuver the craft through space — upended plans. 

Williams and her companion, astronaut and flight commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, have been docked at the space station for more than a month. NASA and Boeing have not set a date for their return.

NASA program manager Steve Stich didn’t commit to a firm departure date during a separate news conference, but indicated a late-July return might be possible. If Starliner doesn’t leave, Stich said the capsule would block another mission scheduled to come to the ISS in mid-August.

The two astronauts are the first to fly to space in the capsule, which is designed to ferry NASA’s astronauts to and from the ISS. The ongoing mission is a critical test of whether the Starliner vehicle is ready to perform regular crewed trips to space.

However, Starliner’s test flight has been plagued by ongoing issues. After launching to space, the craft experienced as many as five separate helium leaks. Additionally, five of the capsule’s thrusters failed and had to be rebooted. NASA and Boeing said they were able to bring four of the thrusters back online, while one will remain off throughout the mission.

Engineers have been analyzing the issues while Starliner’s been docked to the ISS. And on June 28, NASA and Boeing said they would be conducting a new testing campaign at the agency’s White Sands facility in New Mexico. The plan entails firing up a thruster similar to the one Starliner uses to see how it might behave during different phases that the capsule will experience in space.

Depending on what engineers learn from that test, NASA and Boeing will decide when and how Starliner will come home.

“We’re going to learn from that,” Wilmore said of the White Sands testing. “And we’re going to incorporate new processes, new procedures that we will employ if necessary.”

(Updates with details from news conference in sixth paragraph.)

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