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NASA Astronauts Stranded on the ISS: Assessing Their Level of Strandedness

Two astronauts who have been stranded on the International Space Station (ISS) for more than a month are speaking with reporters for the first time on Wednesday afternoon.

Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and pilot Sunita “Suni” Williams took off on 5 June on Starliner’s inaugural mission to orbit with the astronauts.

Upon docking at the ISS, the NASA astronauts were initially scheduled to stay in orbit for eight days.

However, complications with Boeing’s Starliner have led to repeated delays in their return to Earth.

During their prolonged stay on the ISS, the astronauts sought shelter in the spacecraft when a Russian satellite exploded nearby.

If evacuation was necessary, Starliner might have faced challenges detaching from the space station.

The spacecraft’s propulsion system is malfunctioning, affecting its ability to maneuver away from the ISS and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

A number of Starliner’s thrusters have experienced overheating when activated, with helium leaks used to pressurize the thrusters appearing to be linked to usage frequency, as per NASA’s commercial crew manager Steve Stich.

Suni Williams (front left) and Butch Wilmore (front right) pose with fellow astronauts as they enter the ISS on 6 June. Credit: NASA TV
Suni Williams (front left) and Butch Wilmore (front right) as they entered the ISS. Pic: NASA TV

How stuck are they?

Boeing maintains that the astronauts are “not stuck” and assures that “there’s no increased risk when we decide to bring Suni and Butch back to Earth,” according to Mark Nappi, manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.

Starliner is capable of being docked at the ISS for 45 days, or up to 72 days if necessary, with the use of backup systems.

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Watch Boeing’s Starliner crewed launch

If the astronauts still couldn’t use it to come back to Earth, they could hitch a lift with other crews up there.

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is due to take three people back to Earth in September and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Capsule should return in August.

Butch and Suni aren’t in “any danger”, according to Mr Nappi and also aren’t even very stuck by space station standards.

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Last year, NASA’s Frank Rubio landed back on Earth after the longest continuous spaceflight by an American, spending a whopping 371 days in orbit.

His return was delayed for six months because of a coolant leak on his spacecraft.

Between 1994 and 1995, Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent a record-breaking 437 days on the Russian-owned Mir space station, although he always intended to be up there for a long time.

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Starliner delays

Starliner’s issues follow years of setbacks and unsuccessful launches.

In 2014, NASA tasked both SpaceX and Boeing with developing commercial crew capsules, but while SpaceX successfully began ferrying astronauts in 2020, this voyage marked Boeing’s premier crewed launch.

It’s estimated that Boeing’s losses on the Starliner program are around $1.5bn (£1.2bn).

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