By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The first two astronauts to fly Boeing (NYSE:)’s Starliner capsule said from the International Space Station on Wednesday they were confident in the spacecraft’s ability to return them home whenever the company and NASA fix an array of thruster issues that have kept them in space far longer than expected.

“I have a real good feeling in my heart that this spacecraft will bring us home, no problem,” NASA astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams said during the test crew’s first news conference since docking to the ISS more than a month ago.

Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, both veteran NASA astronauts and former U.S. Navy test pilots, were launched aboard Starliner from Florida on June 5 and docked the next day at the ISS, where they were initially scheduled to spend roughly eight days.

A series of issues with Starliner’s propulsion system has extended their mission indefinitely. Five of Starliner’s 28 maneuvering thrusters went dead during its 24-hour trek to the station, a propellant valve failed to properly close and there have been five leaks of helium, which is used to pressurize the thrusters.

“We’re absolutely confident,” Wilmore told reporters. “That mantra you’ve heard, failure is not an option.”

“And that’s why we’re staying, because we’re going to test it. That’s what we do,” Wilmore said, acknowledging that an ongoing investigation by the U.S. space agency and Boeing involving thruster tests on Earth is key for their return.

The current test mission is Boeing’s final step before the spacecraft can clinch NASA certification for routine astronaut flights and become the second U.S. orbital capsule alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has dominated the nascent human spaceflight market amid Starliner’s development delays.

NASA officials and Boeing engineers have focused on the faulty thrusters and aim to conduct weeks of further testing before allowing Starliner to return Wilmore and Williams to Earth. That testing includes firing identical thrusters at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to get insight into what might be plaguing the thrusters in space.

“Once that testing is done, then we’ll look at the plan for landing,” NASA’s commercial crew chief Steve Stich told reporters last month. “We’re not going to target a specific date until we get that testing completed.”

The testing could last “a couple weeks” or more, followed by a NASA review of the resulting data, Stich said. Starliner is approved to stay docked to the ISS for 45 days, or up to 90 days using various backup systems and depending on the health of its lithium ion batteries, which have caused concerns in the past.

Though NASA and Boeing have said Starliner is capable of returning the astronauts to Earth in the event of an emergency on the ISS, the capsule is not approved to fly home under normal, non-emergency circumstances until its thruster issues are resolved or at least better understood.

NASA and Boeing officials have emphasized that the two astronauts are not stranded in space.

A Russian satellite last month broke apart into some 180 pieces of debris near the space station’s orbit and forced astronauts into their various docked spacecraft, including Wilmore and Williams getting into Starliner, to prepare for a potential escape. Boeing cited the event as an example of Starliner’s readiness to return home if absolutely necessary.

“Starliner stood ready to undock and return Wilmore and Williams to Earth if needed,” the company said in a statement last month.

The debris risks waned and astronauts emerged from their capsules an hour later.



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