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Astronauts to remain on ISS as NASA delays Boeing Starliner’s return to Earth after helium leaks

NASA has postponed the Boeing Starliner’s return to Earth, with two astronauts still on board. International Space Station Officials said Friday that no return date has been set as NASA investigates a helium leak and thruster failure that occurred while the spacecraft was docking earlier this month.

NASA astronaut Suni Williams, 58, and Barry “Batch” Wilmore, 61, are scheduled to return to Earth by June 26 to give the team time to analyze data from Starliner, NASA said.

“We are taking our time and following standard Mission Management Team processes,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said in a statement, “making data-driven decisions regarding the small helium system leak and management of thruster performance observed during rendezvous and docking.”

Stich also said that given the mission’s extended duration, “it is appropriate for NASA to complete an agency-level review similar to the one conducted prior to the return of SpaceX Demo-2 after two months in orbit, to document the agency’s formal approval of proceeding as planned.”

Boeing Starliner spacecraft experiences helium leak before docking to space station

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams

NASA astronauts Barry “Batch” Wilmore and Sunita Williams prepare to launch ahead of the Boeing Starliner 1 mission to the International Space Station, June 5, 2024, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Joe Skipper/File/Reuters)

However, SpaceX’s first manned flight of Demo-2 in 2020 did not experience the same problems as those seen during Starliner’s first flight with astronauts on board.

Starliner launches from Florida

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 5, 2024. (Joe Raedl/Getty Images)

Starliner launched on June 5, marking the third attempt to safely enter the atmosphere in about a month. NASA had previously said it had experienced one helium leak before launch and two more before docking with the ISS.

Despite the issues, Stich said Starliner is “performing well” in orbit while docked to the ISS.

Boeing Starliner spacecraft

Pictured here is the Starliner spacecraft docking with the Harmony module’s forward port as the International Space Station orbited 263 miles above the Mediterranean Sea earlier this month. (NASA/Fox News)

SpaceX’s massive super-heavy spacecraft returns to Earth without exploding after first full test flight

“We are strategically using this extra time to complete preparations for the return of Butch and Suni aboard Starliner and pave the way for several key station activities while gaining valuable insight into the systems upgrades we want to implement for the post-certification mission,” Stich said.

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NASA said the space station has enough supplies in orbit and is not under any pressure for crew members to leave the ISS.

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According to NASA, Starliner is also authorized to return home if an emergency occurs on the space station that requires the crew to leave orbit and return to Earth.