International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Why Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams is stuck in space?  


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Starliner mission

Mains level: Cause of delay of Starliner Crew Flight Test mission

Why in the News?

The scheduled return of the Starliner spacecraft, which transported NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this month, has been delayed.

What is the Starliner mission?

  • Objective: The Starliner Crew Flight Test mission aimed to transport NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station (ISS) and demonstrate the spacecraft’s capability to safely ferry crew to and from low-Earth orbit (LEO).
  • Craft Description: CST-100 Starliner, developed by Boeing in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, is designed to accommodate up to seven passengers or a mix of crew and cargo for LEO missions. It is reusable up to 10 times with a turnaround time of six months.
  • Significance: Marks Boeing’s contribution to NASA’s efforts since the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, alongside SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which first delivered cargo in 2012 and transported astronauts in 2020.

What has caused the delay?

  • Technical Issues: Multiple setbacks delayed the mission, including a faulty pressure valve on the Atlas V upper stage, engineering problems with other mechanisms, and issues with a spacecraft valve regulating oxidisers.
  • Specific Challenges: Post-launch, Starliner encountered five helium leaks, malfunctioning maneuvering thrusters, and a propellant valve failure, necessitating mid-mission fixes and assessments.

What would happen to the astronauts?

  • Current Status: Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore remain aboard the ISS, where they are conducting research and experiments. The spacecraft can stay docked for up to 45 days, and the ISS has sufficient supplies for extended periods.
  • Contingency Plan: If safety concerns persist or the Starliner issues cannot be resolved in time, the astronauts may return to Earth aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, currently also docked at the ISS.

Way forward ( what can NASA do?) 

  • Thorough Technical Review: NASA should conduct a comprehensive technical review of the Starliner spacecraft’s systems and components to identify the root causes of the multiple issues encountered during the mission.
  • Enhanced Mission Preparedness: NASA should prioritise enhancing mission preparedness protocols for commercial crew missions, including stricter pre-launch checks, contingency planning for mid-mission anomalies, and robust communication and coordination between mission control and astronauts aboard the ISS. This proactive approach can mitigate risks and ensure smoother operations in future missions.

Mains PYQ: 

Q What is India’s plan to have its own space station and how will it benefit our space programme? (UPSC IAS/2019)

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