Boeing Starliner spacecraft experiencing helium leaks ahead of docking at space station

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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, currently in its first crewed test to the International Space Station, is experiencing helium leaks ahead of docking Thursday afternoon.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft aboard launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Wednesday at 10:52 a.m., with NASA astronauts Suni Williams, 58, and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, 61, on board. 

“Teams have identified three helium leaks on the spacecraft,” NASA’s Johnson Space Center tweeted just over 12 hours after liftoff. “One of these was previously discussed before flight along with a management plan. The other two are new since the spacecraft arrived on orbit. Two of the affected helium valves have been closed and the spacecraft remains stable.”

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Despite the leaks, Starliner “remains on track for a docking at 12:15 pm ET” Thursday, the X account for the ISS stated. NASA and Boeing teams “will meet to review data prior to rendezvous and docking operations on the orbital outpost.”

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After docking, Wilmore and Williams will be at the ISS for about a week, testing “the Starliner spacecraft and its subsystems before NASA works to complete final certification of the transportation system for rotational missions to the orbiting laboratory as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program,” NASA said.

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Wednesday’s launch was the third try in just under a month to get the spacecraft safely in the atmosphere. 

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The second attempt to launch Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft was scrubbed Saturday less than four minutes before blastoff from NASA’S Kennedy Space Center due to a ground system computer triggering an automatic abort command that shut down the launch sequence.

The first attempt to launch was on May 6. NASA, Boeing and ULA scrubbed the opportunity “due to a suspect oxygen relief valve on the Atlas V rocket’s Centaur second stage,” a launch attempt coverage advisory stated. 

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NASA has partnered with Boeing and SpaceX to send astronauts to space since the retirement of space shuttles. Wednesday’s launch was the first successful liftoff of a crewed mission for Boeing, while SpaceX has been launching astronauts into space since 2020.

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“Boeing’s Starliner marks a new chapter of American exploration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Human spaceflight is a daring task – but that’s why it’s worth doing. It’s an exciting time for NASA, our commercial partners, and the future of exploration. Go Starliner, Go Butch and Suni!”

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