Amid Starliner delay, former astronaut discusses being stuck in space: NPR

NPR’s Adrian Florido speaks with retired astronaut Terry Virts about what Boeing Starliner astronauts experience when they’re in space longer than they thought.


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

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

TERRY VIRTS: Thanks for having me.

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 that it’s probably good news for the two Boeing astronauts. They get, you know, a couple of bonus weeks in space. And you never know when your next space flight is going to happen, so I’m sure the astronauts are happy to have some bonus time and space. Also, the crew of the space station – that’s the seven astronauts that are up there – I’m sure they’re happy to have some, you know, free labor for a couple of extra weeks. So the astronauts themselves are all happy, I’m sure.

FLORIDO: But what’s the problem up there? I mean, why didn’t this ship come back?

VIRTS: Well, this is a test flight. So Boeing — this is the only test flight with a human astronaut. And after that, it will be operational. So they have to make sure that they’re certified. Certification is the big word in the NASA ecosystem. And they had a problem when they were docking. Some of the little rocket engines that fly the spacecraft didn’t work. They were thrown out. And some of the helium, a gas that we use to make the propulsion, that — it pressurizes the propellant. There were some small helium leaks. So they shut off the helium. The helium is no longer leaking. And — but the — I think they’re really trying to focus on what caused the little rocket engines to go off. Because it’s a test flight and this is a certification mission, they really want to take the time to understand what happened.

FLORIDO: Well, NASA and Boeing officials are pretty adamant that the two astronauts who flew the ship there, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, are not trapped. Is that technically correct? Would you agree that they are not trapped there?

VIRTS: That’s true. They’ve even stated that in case of an emergency, they can 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 and NASA want – is to get this thing certified. They want the big bureaucratic stamp and stamp certified on the Starliner. You know, and in order to do that, they basically have some free time. There’s a couple of weeks where they can just sit there and their – you know, the engineers can analyze all the data to understand what’s happening with the helium and the jets. Once they get back to Earth, they can never get that data again.

FLORIDO: In 2015, you were in space for 169 days, but NASA delayed your return after a Russian rocket exploded that looked very similar to the one that was supposed to take your replacement crew to the space station. You ended up staying up there for another month or so. Tell us what went through your mind when you heard that news, that you were going to be up there longer than you had planned? Were you in some kind of limbo state?

VIRTS: Yeah. It was a little bit different, because we, you know, it was a six-month 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 another American cargo ship had exploded a few months earlier. So we were kind of running out of supplies. And then our next thought was, I don’t think they’re going to launch our replacement crew, because — they were going to launch on the same Soyuz rocket, basically. So we were kind of stuck in space, low on supplies, and we didn’t know for how long. It was kind of funny. It was like COVID. Before COVID, it was COVID in space — minus the virus. We were just stuck and low on supplies and we didn’t know for how long.

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

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

FLORIDO: I wonder if these astronauts had enough clean clothes with them?

VIRTS: (Laughter) I was wondering the same thing. So the one thing you don’t have to worry about is — 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 enough supplies of that sort of thing. To know if they actually brought enough underwear and, you know, they need shoes to train — I’m sure they did that as a contingency plan or they were able to borrow their crewmates’ stuff. And so I don’t think that’s a problem.

FLORIDO: What advice would you give these astronauts?

VIRTS: I would just say enjoy it. You know, during my — it ended up being a month — I shot a lot of pictures. I worked on an IMAX film called “A Beautiful Planet.” So I shot a lot of that film, actually, during my bonus month. And keep busy. You don’t want to, you know, just sit around. But I know that these two are not going to do that. And I’m sure NASA has plenty of work for them to do. The to-do list is always long and unfilled on space stations, so there’s plenty of work for them to do.

FLORIDO: Is there anything in particular that you’re going to be looking for when they eventually come back, whenever that is?

VIRTS: Yeah. The biggest question is, can they certify it? 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, only flies two astronauts just because it’s safe, and you don’t want to risk any more lives than you have to. But Boeing wants to get this thing certified (unintelligible). If you haven’t been following the news the last couple of years, it’s been — there’s been some bad headlines for Boeing. So they really want a success.

FLORIDO: Well, I spoke with Colonel Terry Virts. He’s a retired NASA astronaut. Thanks for joining us.

VIRTS: Thank you for having me.

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