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Starliner astronauts’ return trip has been pushed back even further

Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams were originally supposed to stay on the ISS for about a week after arriving on June 6.

NASA

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, who flew on the much-delayed first crewed flight of Boeing’s Starliner craft, won’t be coming home from the International Space Station until sometime next month, well past their originally planned return date of June 14. NASA announced last night that it's pushing the date of their return trip back even further in order to allow for more reviews into problems that arose with Starliner during its flight, and to avoid conflicts with upcoming spacewalks. As of now, there’s no date set for the flight back to Earth.

Starliner launched on June 5 and delivered Wilmore and Williams to the ISS about a day later. Their stay was only supposed to last a week or so. During the flight, however, four small helium leaks sprung in the propulsion system, on top of the one that had already been identified prior to launch. And, when Starliner first attempted to approach the ISS on June 6 and begin docking, five of its 28 thrusters went offline. Boeing was able to get four of them back up and running. NASA also revealed a few days after launch that the teams were looking into an issue with a valve in the service module that was “not properly closed.”

The space agency had already pushed the date of the return trip back a few times over the last week and most recently landed on June 26, but now says the flight won’t take place until after the spacewalks planned for June 24 and July 2 have been completed. “We are letting the data drive our decision making relative to managing the small helium system leaks and thruster performance we observed during rendezvous and docking,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, on Friday.

“Starliner is performing well in orbit while docked to the space station,” Stich also said. “We are strategically using the extra time to clear a path for some critical station activities while completing readiness for Butch and Suni’s return on Starliner and gaining valuable insight into the system upgrades we will want to make for post-certification missions.”