Astronauts still stuck in space after Hurricane Beryl delays ride back to Earth

NASA's Johnson Space Center was in the path of Hurricane Beryl, which left millions in southeast Texas without power. NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore spent their 35th day in space on Wednesday for what was originally a week-long test flight.

HOUSTON — Boeing and NASA teams working to understand issues with the Starliner spacecraft before it can depart the space station and bring two astronauts home faced additional delays this week from Hurricane Beryl.

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are the first astronauts to launch on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft during the crew flight test (CFT). The original CFT mission was scheduled to last about eight days on the International Space Station. Still, the astronauts have remained in orbit for 35 days because of issues with the spacecraft service module.

Five thrusters went out as Starliner approached the ISS for docking on June 6. Teams are also investigating several helium leaks on the spacecraft.


This week, Hurricane Beryl added complications to the efforts to bring the astronauts home.

NASA's Johnson Space Center was in the path of Hurricane Beryl, which left millions in southeast Texas without power, including NASA’s Commercial Crew Manager Steve Stich and other NASA and Boeing team members. 

Johnson Space Center opened for full operations on Wednesday, two days after Beryl's landfall on the Texas coast. 

"A little bit of a hiccup, I would say, with Hurricane Beryl coming through. Some people are actually impacted and not able to work as much as we would hope, but we're still continuing to make a lot of progress," Stich said.

Boeing's Commercial Crew Program manager Mark Nappi said Beryl also impacted Boeing's resources at its Houston facilities.

"It impacts the resources that we have just in Houston at the Boeing facility. So, you know, with those resources not being available, we had to reprioritize some of that work and reorder it so that we can still try to stay on plan."

Part of the delay in bringing the astronauts back to Earth is that the service module where the issues originate separates from the Starliner crew module and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. Boeing and NASA are attempting to get as much data while in space as possible before the module is gone. 

Teams in Texas, New Mexico, Alabama, and Ohio have been working with Starliner hardware on Earth to try to replicate the issues seen in space. 

After testing in the vacuum chamber at Glenn Research Center in Ohio, teams are running thruster testing at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico

No date has been set for the astronauts' return to Earth. Stich said "optimistically" they could undock at the end of July.  

Astronauts remain confident Starliner will bring them home

Williams and Wilmore have added additional hands to the daily tasks around the orbiting laboratory, including maintaining experiments and providing spacewalk support. This is the third spaceflight for both astronauts. 

This week the astronauts watched as Beryl took aim at their families and friends in Houston. 

Photos from the ISS and astronauts showed the powerful hurricane as a category 5 when it was pummeling the Caribbean Islands earlier in the week. 

"We are having a great time here on ISS. As you know, Butch and I have been up here before, and it feels like coming back home. It feels good to float around. It feels good to be in space and work up here with the International Space Station team," Williams said. "I'm not complaining, Butch isn't complaining that we're here for a couple of extra weeks."

In a call on Wednesday, both astronauts expressed confidence in the teams on the ground working to ensure their safe return to Earth. 

"I feel confident that if we had to, if there was a problem with the International Space Station, we can get in our spacecraft, and we can undock, talk to our team and figure out the best way to come home," Williams said.

Last week, the astronauts had to shelter in Starliner as a "lifeboat" when a Russian satellite created a debris field in the same orbit as the space station.

Wilmore said they could dock at the ISS when the thrusters went out because of the team's effort at mission control. He said he was confident the team could handle any issue that might arise on the spaceflight home. 

"This is a tough business that we're in. Human spaceflight is not easy in any regime. And there have been multiple issues with every spacecraft that's ever been designed. And that's the nature of what we do," Wilmore said.

Wilmore said decades of human spaceflight give him confidence in the testing process happening now with Starliner. 

"We are very close and friends with those that are making these decisions. And we trust them. We trust their integrity. We trust their technical acumen," Wilmore said. "We trust that the tests that we're doing are the ones that we need to do to get the right answers, to give us the data that we need to come back."