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Astronauts confident Boeing space capsule can return them safely to Earth despite glitches

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Two astronauts who were supposed to return to Earth weeks ago said Wednesday they are confident Boeing’s space capsule can bring them back safely despite a series of nagging malfunctions.

NASA test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams thrown out Early last month, aboard Boeing’s new Starliner capsule, the first people to use it were the first to do so. Helium leaks and thruster failures nearly derailed their mission. arrival on the International Space Station, and have been kept there much longer than anticipated. Now, the earliest they could return could be late July, officials said.

In their first news conference from orbit, both said they look forward to returning once thruster testing is complete here on Earth. They said they don’t complain about having more time in orbit and enjoy helping the station crew. Both have spent time on the orbiting laboratory, which also houses seven other people.

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

The test flight was scheduled to last eight days and end on June 14.

NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said the earliest Starliner astronauts could return would be late July. The goal is to have them back before SpaceX sends a new crew in mid-August, but that could change, too, he said.

This week, NASA and Boeing are attempting to replicate the Starliner thruster problems on a new unit at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, one of the main landing sites in the western U.S. desert. The problem is in the propulsion system, which is used to maneuver the spacecraft.

On June 6, a day after liftoff, five thrusters failed as the capsule approached the space station. Four of them have since been reactivated. Wilmore said there should be enough working thrusters to get him and Williams out of orbit. There are also larger engines that could replace them, if necessary.

“The mantra that they’ve heard is that failure is not an option, so that’s why we’re staying here now,” Wilmore said. “We’re confident that the tests we’re doing are what we need to get the right answers, to give us the data we need to come back.”

Boeing and NASA believe ground testing is critical to determining what may have gone wrong, since that part of the capsule — the service module — is discarded before landing. Leaks are also found in this disposable section.

According to Stich, tests so far have not reproduced the high temperatures reached during the flight. Officials want to make sure the suspect thrusters are not damaged before bringing Starliner back. They were activated more frequently than expected early in the flight and the extra demand on them may have caused them to fail, Stich said.

At the same time, ground tests are underway to better understand the helium leaks, which could be due to faulty seals. Officials have previously said there is enough helium left for the return trip.

Hurricane Beryl slowed some work. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to NASA and Boeing’s control centers, was closed earlier this week to all but the most critical personnel.

Boeing’s Mark Nappi stressed that in the event of an emergency, Starliner and its crew could return immediately. While the company does not believe the boosters are damaged, “we want to fill in the blanks and do this test to make sure.”

NASA commissioned the Starliner and SpaceX Dragon capsules a decade ago for flights with astronauts to and from the space station, paying each company billions of dollars. SpaceX’s first astronaut taxi flight was in 2020. Boeing’s first crewed flight was repeatedly delayed by software and other issues.

There have been no discussions with SpaceX about sending a rescue capsule, Stich said.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Educational and Scientific Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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