Boeing’s new spacecraft is forced to extend its stay at the International Space Station

The spacecraft experienced numerous leaks and technical glitches. NASA says it is using the extra time to assess whether it can return safely.


Earlier this month, two astronauts traveled to the International Space Station using a brand new spacecraft built by Boeing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Five, four, three, two, one, flash…


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: …And the Starliner and Atlas V takeoff.

FADEL: Their flight was supposed to last about a week, but problems with the Boeing spacecraft have delayed their return. This has led to speculation that the astronauts are stuck on the space station. Joining me to discuss what’s going on is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Greetings.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So Geoff, I guess the first question is are these two astronauts trapped?

BRUMFIEL: Not according to Boeing. In fact, in the first line of the statement they sent to NPR, they said, quote, “astronauts are not trapped on the International Space Station,” and that emphasis is theirs, not mine. However, Boeing’s email also said they don’t currently have a return date, so I guess we’ll call this flight delayed.

FADEL: All right. So they point out that they are not trapped. What’s the problem with the spaceship?

BRUMFIEL: Well, as we heard at the top, it’s called the Starliner. It’s basically an updated capsule reminiscent of the days of the Apollo or Gemini program, if you can remember that. And so that’s one thing that Boeing should be able to nail down. It’s not that complicated. But problem after problem has been there for years, even before this release – problems with the computers, problems with the parachutes used for landing.

Finally, they got going and two more problems emerged. First, there were some leaks in a helium system that is part of the system that allows the spacecraft to maneuver.


BRUMFIEL: And then there were special problems with the thrusters, which are also used to return to Earth. Now, Boeing says this is a test flight. They say none of this is stopping the spacecraft from turning back if it needs to. But NASA has remained very quiet about all this. They haven’t said anything publicly for a week. They are continuing their security analysis and say they will provide an update later today. So maybe we’ll hear their thoughts then.

FADEL: All right. Geoff, Boeing has had numerous problems with its airplanes. Are they related to the problems with the spacecraft?

BRUMFIEL: You know, a lot of people think so. I talked to Ron Epstein. He is an analyst at Bank of America who has followed Boeing for decades. He says this is a real cultural problem in the company now.

RON EPSTEIN: You’ve had management teams over the years that have focused more on shareholder returns than the company’s core engineering business.

BRUMFIEL: Whether it’s passenger planes or spacecraft, these safety issues keep coming up. And it looks like this is something that could really hurt Boeing in the long run.

FADEL: All right. So, back to the situation in space, do we know how these two astronauts are doing there?

BRUMFIEL: Well, these aren’t just any astronauts. Their names are Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. They are veterans of the space program and both are former Navy test pilots. These two cucumbers are very cute. So they did some interviews from the station. And they haven’t talked about it directly, but they’ve talked in general terms about being up there. Here is Suni Williams.


SUNI WILLIAMS: Life on Earth is truly the best thing ever, and we’ll be glad to come home when it’s our time to come home.

BRUMFIEL: You know, they got a pretty good view up there. I think they’re just trying to enjoy it as much as they can. And NASA will get them home one way or another. They have other spaceships they can use. They have other ways to bring Wilmore and Williams home if they really decide the Starliner is not safe to fly.

FADEL: NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much.


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