Malfunction on Boeing’s space shuttle strands two astronauts on ISS – National & International News – THU 20Jun2024


Malfunction on Boeing’s space shuttle strands two astronauts on the International Space Station, adding to company’s reputational woes.

Boeing’s space shuttle strands two astronauts on ISS

After two scrubbed launches due to malfunctions, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft finally launched its first crewed mission on June 5. The mission was to transport two NASA astronauts, Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, to the International Space Station, where they were to remain for a week. However, soon after launch, helium leaks were reported on the craft. As Starliner has about to dock with ISS, 5 of its 26 reaction control thrusters failed, delaying and complicating the docking procedure. The crew did eventually successfully dock with ISS

NASA and Boeing have decided Williams and Wilmore will now have to remain aboard ISS until at least June 26. Neither NASA nor Boeing have expressed doubts about Starliner’s ability to return its crew safely to earth. However, Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, “I think we’re taking our extra time, given that this is a crewed vehicle, and we want to make sure that we haven’t left any stone unturned”.

NASA and Boeing will use the extra time to run tests on the service module, where the problems have been detected, to better understand what went wrong. On the return trip to earth, the service module will be jettisoned ahead of re-entry. Since it will probably burn up in the earth’s atmosphere, engineers can only run these tests before the capsule returns to earth. 

Previous issues and high stakes for Boeing

Boeing’s Starliner program is a competitor to Space X, whose reusable Crew Dragon capsule has already carried out several successful missions for NASA. Starliner experienced similar problems during a previous uncrewed flight in 2019. At that time, the problems prevented Starliner from successfully docking with ISS. Similar problems compelled NASA two scrub this launch twice, the first of which was scheduled in early May. 

Such hiccups in space travel aren’t unusual, especially when trying out new spacecraft designs. However, Boeing had a lot riding on Starliner’s mission going off without a hitch. Firstly, a safe and successful launch might have helped burnish the company’s flagging reputation in light of concerns over its lax safety culture, a problem numerous Boeing whistleblowers have said comes down to a “profits over safety” attitude at the company.

Secondly, Boeing has invested heavily in a bid to catch up to Space-X, its main commercial space travel rival. Boeing has already lost more than $1.5 billion on its Starliner project. Those losses may climb still higher as the company remains under contract for a total of 6 crewed missions for NASA. Getting Starliner off the ground (as a brand) may also have implications for Boeing’s joint-venture with Blue Origin to build a low-orbit commercial space station to capitalize on the space tourism boom.

The company has also lost money on other prestige projects, such as its current contract to replace the two Air Force One planes. Since the company signed the new Air Force One project in 2018, the company’s losses have run to about $2 billion, due to supply chain shortages, labor issues and quality-control problems. Delivery of the first Air Force One plane has also been pushed back about 3 years from its original delivery date to 2026. Due to the delays and cost overruns, Boeing was axed from the running to replace the Air Force’s fleet of four Doomsday planes last year.

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