July 14, 2024

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How SpaceX can rescue stranded Boeing Starliner astronauts

How SpaceX can rescue stranded Boeing Starliner astronauts

SpaceX may have to rescue two astronauts stranded on the International Space Station after their Boeing Starliner plane suffered worrying helium leaks.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sonny Williams launched into space aboard the Starliner spacecraft on June 5. They were supposed to stay on the International Space Station for just nine days, but problems with their ship have left their return date up in the air, and NASA is now desperately trying to help resolve. the problem.

Boeing’s rival SpaceX will likely be tapped to eventually bring it home aboard the Crew Dragon spaceship.

Astronauts Sonny Williams and Butch Wilmore will remain aboard the International Space Station until at least July 2. Reuters
The Starliner remains docked at the International Space Station while officials study its helium leaks. AP

The result would be a severe blow to troubled aerospace giant Boeing, which spent about $1.5 billion in cost overruns — beyond its initial $4.5 billion contract with NASA — hoping to make the Starliner a second option for reaching the International Space Station.

While NASA and Boeing officials have stressed that the current problems aboard the Starliner do not indicate a need for SpaceX to provide assistance, the Crew Dragon is up to the task.

The SpaceX ship, which most recently carried four astronauts to the International Space Station in March, is capable of carrying two to four passengers at a time, but can accommodate additional passengers in emergency situations.

SpaceX has been the only commercial company approved to transport astronauts and cargo to the space station since 2020.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment on Tuesday.

Michael Lembeck, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who served as a consultant to Boeing’s spaceflight division from 2009 to 2014, told The Post that the Starliner is still the most likely Willmore and Williams’ journey to Earth.

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could be used to help bring astronauts home. Via Reuters

“Right now, I would say SpaceX’s need to advance is very low,” Lembeck said. “We would have to see a major problem emerge in the next couple of days to justify this reaction.”

Lembeck and Katsuo Kurabayashi, a professor of aerospace engineering at New York University, told The Post that NASA likely delayed the return flight home so they could spend more time studying the vehicle while it is still attached to the International Space Station to learn more about what happened. The mistake and how to avoid it in her next mission.

Lembeck explained that while the capsule carrying the astronauts will return to Earth, the service module – which stores the engines, fuel and helium tanks – will not be able to.

The Starliner glitches were an embarrassing blow to manufacturer Boeing. NASA/AFP via Getty Images

“With enough helium gas remaining, it would be wise for teams to take enough time to ensure the Starliner is fully prepared and certified for the return flight,” Kurabayashi added.

The New York University professor noted that the situation is still fluid and that upcoming updates coming from NASA will be an indication of how the problem will evolve.

“If they started talking about the rescue mission by chance, it would indicate that there were some serious defects in the potentially life-threatening hardware that were found on the Sarliner,” Kurabayashi said.

Boeing hopes to make its Starliner aircraft the second choice for NASA scientists to reach the International Space Station. AP

The last time a NASA astronaut needed help to return to Earth was in 2022, when a leak occurred in the Russian Soyuz capsule carrying American Frank Rubio.

While NASA considered turning to SpaceX for help, Rubio eventually returned aboard an empty Soyuz capsule launched by Russia.

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The accident extended Rubio’s six-month mission to one that lasted more than a year, or 371 days, a record for an American in space.