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Sunita Williams Expresses Joy on Returning Home After Month-Long Space Mission

Washington: Two US astronauts, Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore, are awaiting their return to Earth after being delayed on the International Space Station (ISS) due to technical issues with the Boeing Starliner spacecraft. The pair, who launched on June 5 aboard the brand-new Starliner, were originally scheduled for a week-long mission but have now been in space for over a month.

The Boeing Starliner, which NASA hopes to certify for regular crew transport to and from the ISS, encountered several problems shortly after launch. The spacecraft docked with the ISS on June 6, but their return has been postponed due to malfunctions with the thrusters and helium leaks discovered during the journey.

Despite these challenges, both astronauts expressed confidence in the Starliner and its team during a live press call. Mission commander Butch Wilmore stated, "We're absolutely confident." Sunita Williams added, "I have a real good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home, no problem."

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While on the ISS, Wilmore and Williams have remained busy, performing tasks such as changing out a pump in the urine-to-water processing machine and conducting science experiments, including gene sequencing in microgravity. They have also tested the Starliner as a "safe haven" vehicle for emergencies aboard the ISS and evaluated its life support systems with four people inside.

The return date for the astronauts remains uncertain, with NASA officials indicating a potential return in late July. Before their return can be scheduled, engineering teams need to run more simulations on the ground to understand the technical issues Starliner experienced and potentially modify the descent plan.

The initial launch of the Starliner revealed a single helium leak, but more leaks emerged during the flight. Helium, which is non-combustible, is used to pressurize the propulsion system. Additionally, some of the thrusters failed to operate correctly during the approach to the ISS, causing delays in docking. Engineers managed to restart all but one of the malfunctioning thrusters and are investigating the cause, with theories ranging from debris entering the system to improperly sized seals.

Boeing executive Mark Nappi suggested that overheating due to excessive firing might be the reason behind the thruster malfunctions. Despite these issues, NASA and Boeing are confident that the Starliner can return safely in an emergency, emphasizing that the more powerful thrusters needed for the deorbit burn are unaffected.

However, there remains uncertainty about the condition of the malfunctioning orientation control thrusters and whether they have degraded. This could necessitate relying on other thrusters during descent, a point NASA official Steve Stich acknowledged. He also noted that while the primary plan is to return Wilmore and Williams on the Starliner, a return on a SpaceX Crew Dragon cannot be ruled out if necessary.

The delay is a significant setback for Boeing, which, along with SpaceX, was awarded a multibillion-dollar contract by NASA in 2014 to develop crewed spacecraft following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. SpaceX successfully completed its first crewed test in 2020 and has since flown dozens of people, while Boeing has faced repeated delays and technical issues with the Starliner.

As NASA and Boeing work to resolve the Starliner's problems, Wilmore and Williams continue their extended mission aboard the ISS, contributing to scientific research and maintaining the station's operations while awaiting their journey back to Earth.

July 11, 2024 10:21 a.m. 516

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