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Nasa And Boeing Knew Of Helium Leak Before Starliner Launch, Leaving Astronauts Stuck In Space

NASA and Boeing proceeded with the launch of the Starliner rocket on June 5, despite knowing about a helium leak, which they considered too small to pose a threat.

Starliner spacecraft Photo: Reuters

NASA and Boeing officials were aware of a helium leak in the Starliner rocket before its June 5 launch but deemed it too minor to delay the mission. Now, two astronauts are stuck on the International Space Station (ISS) due to a leak, new reports reveal.

Prior to launch, NASA and Boeing managers found a helium leak on the Starliner but decided to proceed, believing it wouldn't pose a safety threat, according to CBS News. The launch had already been delayed once due to another leak.

After reaching orbit, four more helium leaks emerged, and one of the rocket's thrusters was deemed unusable. Consequently, astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams, who were supposed to return on June 13 after a week on the ISS, will now stay until at least July 2.

Boeing is facing significant criticism over the situation. The aerospace giant has been under scrutiny following several high-profile malfunctions of its planes over the past year, with at least 20 whistleblowers voicing concerns about safety and quality issues.

NASA stated that engineers are currently analysing and testing the helium leaks and thruster failures. "We are taking our time and following our standard mission management team process," said Steve Stich, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. He emphasised that decisions are being driven by data and reassured that despite the issues, NASA still has confidence in Starliner.

NASA officials also dismissed claims that Wilmore and Williams are stuck on the ISS, stating that the astronauts are cleared to undock and return home if necessary. However, the ongoing issues and tests raise doubts about Starliner’s ability to make the six-hour return trip safely.

Boeing has already spent about $1.5 billion in cost overruns beyond the initial $4.5 billion contract with NASA. The space agency aims to use Starliner as its second mode of transportation to the ISS alongside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Starliner's persistent leaks could jeopardise its future and further damage Boeing's reputation. The company has faced safety concerns since the start of the year, including a door panel incident on an Alaskan Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 jet.