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The return of Starliner astronauts has been further delayed

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Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams on the long-delayed first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft are not due to return from the International Space Station until next month, well past their originally scheduled June 14 return date. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced last night that it would further postpone the return of Starliner to avoid conflicts with future spacewalks while further investigating the issues that occurred during the flight. At this time, no date has been set for its return to Earth.

Starliner launched on June 5 and delivered Wilmore and Williams to the ISS about a day later, for a planned stay of about a week. However, during the flight, four small helium leaks occurred in the propulsion system; only one had been identified before launch. Then, as Starliner approached the ISS for the first time on June 6 to begin docking, five of its 28 thrusters went offline. Boeing was able to get four of them up and running again. It also revealed a few days after the launch that the team was investigating an issue with a valve in the service module “not closing properly.”

NASA has already postponed the return date several times in the last week, most recently to June 26, but this time the flight will not take place until after the completion of spacewalks scheduled for June 24 and July 2. “We are making data-driven decisions regarding the small leak in the helium system and management of thruster performance that was observed during rendezvous and docking,” Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said Friday.

“Starliner is performing well in orbit while docked to the space station,” Stich said. “We are strategically using this extra time to pave the way for critical space station activities while completing preparations for the return of Butch and Suni aboard Starliner, and to gain valuable information on system upgrades we would like to implement during the post-certification mission.”

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