Lost in space?

Silver Linings

NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore are still stranded on the International Space Station after Boeing's plagued Starliner spacecraft finally managed to drop them off last month.

Since then, technical issues affecting the spacecraft have delayed their return journey indefinitely, with multiple helium leaks kicking off an investigation.

Williams and Wilmore were originally meant to return on June 14 — over three weeks ago — and NASA has yet to announce when its latest attempt will be to bring them back down to Earth.

It raises an interesting question: how are Williams and Wilmore feeling about the delay? One former colleague says that the extended stay on board the orbital outpost could actually be a blessing rather than a curse.

"Well, my first reaction was it's probably good news for the two Boeing astronauts," retired Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut Terry Virts told NPR. "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."

Virts also argued that the rest of the station's crew would be "happy" to get some "free labor."

Glass Half Full

Meanwhile, NASA has been adamant that the two astronauts are technically "not stranded in space," despite being stuck there indefinitely.

"So far, we don’t see any scenario where Starliner is not going to be able to bring Butch and Suni home," NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich told reporters last month.

Boeing's spacecraft has already faced years of delays and budget overruns, with technical issues greatly hampering its efforts to establish an alternative to SpaceX's tried-and-true Crew Dragon astronaut shuttle.

But according to Virts, it's all par for the course, especially given the fact that Starliner's latest trip is a test flight, not an operational mission.

In 2015, Virts had his own return journey from the International Space Station delayed after a Russian supply ship had crashed back down to Earth following a rocket failure. Officials at the time wanted to give engineers more time to conclude their investigation into the mishap.

Virts told NPR that he believes they're indeed not stuck and that they could simply "jump in the capsule, close the hatch, and come back to Earth" in case of an emergency.

"They want to take the big bureaucratic rubber stamp and stamp certified on the Starliner," he said. "You know, and so in order to do that, they basically have some free time" during which "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," he added.

Virts also took the opportunity to send a message to Williams and Wilmore.

"I would just say enjoy it," he told NPR. "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."

More on Starliner: NASA Praises Boeing's Stranded Starliner for Managing Not to Explode While Docked to Space Station

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