Astronauts Remain Stranded in Space Indefinitely Amid Boeing Starliner Problems

By: Julia Mehalko | Published: Jun 25, 2024

Two NASA astronauts who flew up into space in Boeing’s Starliner capsule will remain on the International Space Station (ISS) indefinitely amid ongoing problems with the Boeing craft.

This latest revelation comes after repeated NASA delays. The two astronauts were supposed to return to Earth on June 22. Now, NASA hasn’t given a date as to when they will actually return.

Starliner’s Early Issues

Even before Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft went into orbit, there were many issues with the overall craft. The rocket launch that sent astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore was delayed various times, thanks to valve issues and helium leaks.

Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore posing in front of the Boeing Starliner craft.

Source: NASA Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

In early June, Williams and Wilmore finally were able to launch into space — even though Boeing and NASA engineers knew there was a helium leak onboard.


A Small Helium Leak Turns Into Something Else

According to engineers at the time, this small helium leak wasn’t that big of a deal — though they did delay one launch attempt because of it.

A look up at the Boeing Starliner capsule seen on top of a rocket.

Source: NASA Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

They assured the public that even if this leak was bigger than they thought, it still wouldn’t bring any danger to Williams and Wilmore. However, once the Starliner capsule went into orbit with the two astronauts inside, it was revealed that this small helium leak was going to be an issue.

Multiple Helium Leaks

When the Starliner went into orbit in space, it was discovered that there were four more helium leaks that had been detected.

The Boeing Starliner above Earth in orbit approaching the International Space Station.

Source: NASA Johnson Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

Clearly, this became an issue. However, astronauts Williams and Wilmore were able to safely dock at the ISS on June 6 — though not without some complications.

Malfunctioning Thrusters

When the Starliner capsule was trying to dock at the ISS, five of its thrusters ended up malfunctioning during this critical moment.

A view of the Boeing Starliner above Earth while in orbit.

Source: NASA Johnson Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

This led to the vehicle being backed up from the docking station, as the thrusters had to be refired so that they come back online.

Analyzing These Problems

Now, NASA and Boeing are taking the time to really look at these many problems. They’re analyzing the additional helium leaks and trying to fix them, if they can.

Boeing’s Starliner launching into space.

Source: U.S. Space Force/Wikimedia Commons

They’re also working to find out why five thrusters shut off. So far, four of these five thrusters have successfully come back online.


Delay After Delay

As they look at these Starliner problems, NASA has chosen to delay Williams and Wilmore’s return to Earth consistently.

An official portrait of astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore.

Source: NASA Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

At first, both astronauts were only supposed to stay up in the ISS for about a week after docking, likely returning around June 18. That was quickly pushed back to June 22, then June 26.


An Indefinite Delay

Now, NASA has delayed this return to Earth yet again — and hasn’t publicly revealed when these astronauts may finally come home.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams outside.

Source: NASA Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

As a result, Williams and Wilmore will remain on the ISS alongside other astronauts, working on tasks and on the Starliner as their journey home is repeatedly pushed off.


NASA’s Statement

NASA has explained that problems such as these are common, and they’re simply working to ensure Starliner is in the best shape possible before Williams and Wilmore get back inside it.

Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore seen in gear during a dress rehearsal.

Source: NASA Kennedy Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

Steve Stich, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, stated, “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.”


Starliner’s Days Are Counting Down

While NASA has explained that Williams and Wilmore are happy to spend more time in space — as both of them haven’t been back in many years — critics have pointed out that the astronauts only have a small window to return to Earth.

The International Space Station seen over Earth in space.

Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Starliner can remain docked at the ISS for 45 days, thanks to limited fuel supplies. Therefore, the days for the astronauts to return home are dwindling down.


Boeing’s Trial Run

Starliner’s launch into orbit and docking at the ISS is all a part of Boeing’s trial run with NASA. Through this test, Boeing is attempting to show NASA that it can safely ferry its astronauts to the ISS and back.

A view of the Boeing Starliner capsule in a factory.

Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

SpaceX has been ferrying astronauts since 2020. Boeing hopes to do the same, though these persistent problems do put the company in a difficult position.


When the Astronauts May Return

Though NASA has yet to officially announce when Williams and Wilmore will once again step foot on Earth, they have hinted that it could happen after a planned spacewalk at the ISS on July 2.

Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore with other NASA astronauts in the International Space Station.

Source: NASA Johnson Space Center/Wikimedia Commons

NASA and Boeing will likely reveal this intended date sometime in the near future — if they figure out the Starliner’s problems before then.