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Amid the Starliner delay, a former astronaut discusses being stuck in space


In early June, NASA launched its Starliner spacecraft into space. It was a test run for the new Boeing spaceship. The plan was to have it dock on the International Space Station and return home to Earth after about a week. Well, it's been more than a month, and the ship is still up there. A series of malfunctions have indefinitely postponed Starliner's return.

For more on this, and to learn what it means for the two astronauts on board, we called up Terry Virts. He's a retired Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut. He also served as a commander of the International Space Station. Col. Virts, welcome.

TERRY VIRTS: Thanks for having me on.

FLORIDO: What was your reaction when you heard that the Starliner would have to stay in space longer than originally planned?

VIRTS: Well, my first reaction was it's probably good news for the two Boeing astronauts. They're, you know, they get a few bonus weeks in space. And you never know when your next space flight is going to happen, and so I'm sure the astronauts are happy to get some bonus time and space. Also, the Space Station crew - that's the seven astronauts that are there - I'm sure they're happy to have some, you know, free labor for a few extra weeks. So the astronauts themselves are all happy, I'm sure.

FLORIDO: But what's the problem up there? I mean, why hasn't this ship been able to come back?

VIRTS: Well, this is a test flight. So Boeing - this is the one human astronaut test flight. And then after this, it's going to be operational. So they need to make sure they're certified. Certification is the big word in the NASA ecosystem. And they had a problem while they were docking. Some of the small rocket motors that control the spacecraft didn't work. They got kicked out. And some of the helium, which is a gas that we use to make the propulsion that - it pressurizes the propellant. There were some small helium leaks. So they closed off the helium. The helium is not leaking anymore. And - but the - I think they're really trying to focus on what caused the small rocket engines to fire. Because it's a test flight and this is a certification mission, they really want to take the time and understand what happened.

FLORIDO: Well, NASA and Boeing officials are pretty adamant that the two astronauts who flew the ship up there, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, that they aren't stuck. Is that technically right? Do you agree that they're not stuck up there?

VIRTS: That's true. In fact, they've actually declared that if there were an emergency, they could jump in the capsule, close the hatch, and come back to Earth. But again, this is a test flight, and the real goal - you know, what Boeing wants and what NASA wants - is to declare this thing certified. They want to take the big bureaucratic rubber stamp and stamp certified on the Starliner. You know, and so in order to do that, they basically have some free time. There's a few weeks that they can just stay and their - you know, the engineers can analyze all the data to understand what's going on with the helium and the jets. Once they come back to Earth, they'll never be able to get that data again.

FLORIDO: In 2015, you were in space for what was supposed to be 169 days, but NASA delayed your return after a Russian rocket blew up that was very similar to the one that was going to be used to take your replacement crew up to the space station. You ended up being up there for another month or so. Talk to us a little bit about what was going through your mind when you heard that news, that you'd be staying up there longer than you'd planned? Were you sort of in this limbo state?

VIRTS: Yeah. It was a little bit different because we, you know, it was a half a year mission. It wasn't just a one or two-week mission, and we were ready to come back. And you know, when they had this accident, the first thought was, well, we just lost some supplies because there had been - another American cargo ship had blown up a few months earlier. So we were kind of running low on supplies. And then our next thought was, I don't think they're going to launch our replacement crew because - they would launch basically on the same Soyuz rocket. So we were kind of stuck in space, low on supplies, and we didn't know how long. It was kind of funny. It was like COVID. Before there was COVID, it was COVID in space - minus the virus. We were just stuck and low on supplies and didn't know how long.

FLORIDO: How long do you think they might be up there? I mean, how long might it take NASA to figure this out and say, OK, we're ready to bring you back?

VIRTS: Well, I think they'll be there probably for a few more weeks. It might be longer than that. I don't know exactly what technical data they need to get, what technical data they want to get. You know, I think they've gotten what they need. They could come back tomorrow and be safe. But what Boeing doesn't want, I'm sure, is to have to fly another test mission. So they'll probably stay there as long as they need to to get certified.

FLORIDO: I just wonder whether these astronauts took enough change of clothes, you know?

VIRTS: (Laughter) I was wondering the same thing. So the one thing you don't have to worry about - the Space Station has more than enough supplies. There's - I don't know the exact number, but there's, like, a year's worth of food and oxygen and water. And so there's plenty of supplies like that. To know if they actually took enough underwear and, you know, they need some shoes to work out - I'm sure they either did as a contingency plan or they can borrow their crewmates' stuff. And so I don't think that's a problem.

FLORIDO: What advice would you have for those astronauts?

VIRTS: I would just say enjoy it. You know, during my - it ended up being a month - I took a lot of photos. I was working on an IMAX movie called "A Beautiful Planet." So I helped shoot a lot of that film, actually, during my bonus month. And stay busy. You don't want to, you know, just sit around. But I know these two, they're not going to sit around. And I'm sure NASA will have plenty of work for them to do. The honey do list is always long and unfilled on space stations, so there's plenty of work for them to do.

FLORIDO: Is there something in particular you're going to be paying attention to as they eventually make their way back, whenever that is?

VIRTS: Yeah. The biggest question is, will they be able to certify? I mean, this is by far the big - this is the big question because Boeing wants it to be certified so they can start launching, you know, normal missions with four astronauts on board instead of two. NASA normally, on a first flight, you only fly two astronauts just because it's safe, and you don't want to risk more lives than you have to. But Boeing is going to want this thing certified (unintelligible). If you haven't been reading the news the last few years, it's been - there's been some bad headlines for Boeing. So they really want a success.

FLORIDO: Well, I've been speaking with Col. Terry Virts. He's a retired NASA astronaut. Thanks for joining us.

VIRTS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.