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Starliner astronauts Butch and Sunny 'not in danger, just having an extended stay'

Space — A weeklong stay for NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunny Williams has turned into more than a month onboard the International Space Station. But that may not be a bad thing, according to some experts.

"They’re not in danger, just having an extended stay. But you know what? Astronauts love being in space and even though this was unexpected, Butch and Sunny are doing just fine,” explained former NASA astronaut and International Space Station (ISS) commander, Leroy Chiao.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has suffered technical issues that have delayed its return indefinitely, but it’s not as dire a situation as some media outlets may lead people to believe.

“The bottom line is, they are not really stuck. Butch and Sunny can come home and if there’s an issue and they need to get back, they can get back in the Starliner and come down,” said Chiao. “In this case, there’s no rush to bring them down so why not be extra conservative, do some extra testing to understand as much as possible what the problems were so that they can fix those problems for the next mission. It’s a small price to pay, having these folks stay up there a little bit longer.”

In addition to some thruster issues (four of the five failed thrusters were eventually cleared), Starliner experienced helium leaks on the first part of the trip. As of July 1, NASA and Boeing officials had not yet revealed whether they’ve determined the root cause of those problems.

"They had no problem getting docked and onboard the station, but once they were there, NASA and Boeing started doing trouble shooting. Asking what went wrong? Why did this happen," said Chiao.

The Starliner team is currently conducting tests on the ground in New Mexico. The reason that teams on the ground said they want to keep the Starliner safely attached to the ISS is so they can continue working to find out what caused the thruster issues and helium leaks.

Both issues are on a portion of the Starliner that isn't supposed to survive reentry back to Earth, leaving ground teams with few options to continue gathering data from the component after Williams and Wilmore return home.

"The reason there’s been such a long delay, is that the part of the vehicle that’s having the problems is the service module, the part that’s below the capsule. That part doesn’t come home, it separates and burns up in the atmosphere, so engineers want to get as much data as possible. They’re doing some testing, some evaluation before they must take the vehicle back and then lose the ability to get any more information," said Chiao.

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