Two Astronauts Are Stuck in Space While Boeing Rushes To Address Hardware Issues

By: Stephanie Bontorin | Published: Jun 20, 2024

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft set a new achievement this month when it launched into space, ferrying two NASA astronauts on a round trip to the International Space Station. Although the spacecraft experienced long delays, many were excited when the rocket finally launched.

Now, two veteran astronauts piloting test flights are in a difficult situation. Multiple breakdowns with hardware on the spacecraft have left them stuck in orbit while Boeing scrambles to come up with a solution to bring the two seasoned astronauts safely home.

Who Are the Astronauts on Board?

The spaceflight recruited two veteran astronauts for the job. Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore.

A man and a woman pose in their official blue NASA uniforms against a white background

Source: @NASASpaceOps/X

Sunita Lyn Williams, nicknamed Suni, is an American astronaut and US Navy officer who previously held the record for most spacewalks and spacewalk time for a woman. Barry Eugene Wilmore, nicknamed Butch, is also a NASA astronaut and a US Navy test pilot. He has embarked on three separate spaceflights since 2009.

The Astronauts Have Been Forced To Extend Their Stay Twice Already

The flight beginning on June 6 was intended to last no more than one week. However, troubles on the vehicle experienced en route include helium leaks and thrusters that abruptly stopped working.

Two astronauts wearing blue suits hold flowers as they wave to a crowd behind them

Source: @Astro_Pam/X

Now, their expected return is June 26, 20 days past their launch date. Boeing engineers are scrambling to find the source of the ongoing issues to try to avoid any more delays on their trip home.

Williams and Wilmore Are Currently Safe but in Limbo

As of today, the Boeing spacecraft is docked at the International Space Station. Staying in a safe spot will make it easier for crews back on Earth to pinpoint any issues with the spacecraft.

A view of a NASA ship outside of the window of the International Space Station

Source: @FlyingMagazine/X

It’s expected that experts can eliminate anymore hardware failure so that the two seasoned astronauts can return safely to Earth without any more delays.

What Are the Risks of Space Exploration?

NASA notes that there are five main threats whenever an astronaut takes part in space travel: space radiation, isolation and confinement, distance from Earth, gravity fields, and hostile environments.

Two large rockets launch in unison leaving a trail of white fire behind them

Source: SpaceX/Unsplash

Space travel has been experimental since it first became a reality. Out of 676 people who have flown into space, 19 of them have died, along with a few animals on test flights. Most of the deaths have occurred because of hardware issues on the space craft.

Many Things Can Fail on a Rocket

Although simple space flights like Starlink Satellite deposits have become more common, there is always a risk that a rocket about to launch will experience a total engine failure.

The crew of the space shuttle challenger lined up for an official photo in their NASA uniforms against an American flag.

Source: @AkronOhioMayor/X

Many people might remember the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986. A team of astronauts and one teacher who won an essay contest were sent into space when a booster failure caused the engine to explode. All 7 American crew members on board were killed.


Officials Believe That the Astronauts Will Return Unharmed

The official teams with NASA and Beoing think that the Starliner will be able to return safely.

A picture of Earth taken from space

Source: Freepik

At a press conference on Tuesday, Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said, “We really want to work through the remainder of the data.”


Unlucky Boeing Embroiled in Another Scandal

In the past few months, Boeing has been embroiled in a whistleblower scandal that has left two of the main players dead. The company has been accused of foregoing necessary safety checks resulting in loss of life.

A large commercial airplane flies through a blue sky

Source: Freepik

However, the company is now attempting to spin the space launch as a success and a “learning opportunity.” Mark Nappi, Beoing’s vice president and program manager of the Starliner program, said on Tuesday that the “unplanned” side of the mission is tough for the company to stomach.


Growing List of Blunders for the Flight Company

The recent space shuttle delay is just one of many issues plaguing the company. In addition to the whistleblower scandal, multiple Boeing planes have been flagged for mechanical errors.

A large Boeing sign outside of the official head quarters

Source: @disclorsureorg/X

The Starliner program is already years behind schedule, which adds a point of worry for the families involved. It’s unknown whether the space craft was rushed or if any last minute safety checks were skipped.


Delays During Space Exploration Are Not Uncommon

Due to the high level of risk when undertaking space travel, it’s not uncommon for trips to be delayed or lengthened to ensure proper safety protocols.

A large rocket lakes flight while leaving a large plume of smoke in its wake

Source: NASA/Unsplash

Boeing and NASA have both stated that it’s safer to leave the Starliner, along with Williams and Wilmore, on the space station while additional analysis is conducted.


A Series of Setbacks

Spacecraft issues have plagued the Starliner program every step of the way. The vehicle faced years of delays and expenses have added up past the $1 billion mark.

The exterior of the Starliner spacecraft far above the Earth

Source: @spacebrandonb/X

The first Starliner test mission was flown unmanned in late 2019 with terrible missteps. Another uncrewed flight launched in 2022 that uncovered multiple software issues with some of the vehicle’s thrusters.


The Trip Home From Space Is the Most Dangerous Leg of the Mission

The danger is always a factor when a spacecraft returns home from orbit. It’s the most perilous stretch of the mission, as any number of mechanical issues can arise when descending.

The exterior of a large spacecraft in space

Source: @anajuliabanlei/X

The Starliner will travel more than 22 times the speed of sound before hitting Earth’s atmosphere, baking the spacecraft’s exterior at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the spacecraft reaches its final descent, parachutes must deploy at the right time to get the capsule to the space station with the astronauts unharmed.