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Boeing's new spacecraft is forced to extend its stay at the International Space Station

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Earlier this month, two astronauts traveled to the International Space Station using a brand-new spacecraft built by Boeing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Five, four, three, two, one, ignition...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACECRAFT LAUNCHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...And liftoff of Starliner and Atlas V.

FADEL: Their flight was supposed to last about a week, but problems with the Boeing spaceship have delayed their return. That's led to speculation that the astronauts are stuck aboard the space station. Joining me to discuss what's going on is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So, Geoff, I guess the first question is are these two astronauts actually stranded?

BRUMFIEL: Not according to Boeing. In fact, in the first line of the statement they sent NPR, they said, quote, "the astronauts are not stranded at the International Space Station," and that emphasis is theirs, not mine. However, the Boeing email also said they currently don't have a return date, so I guess we'd call this flight delayed.

FADEL: OK. So they emphasize they're not stranded. What is the problem with the spacecraft?

BRUMFIEL: Well, as we heard at the top, it's called Starliner. It's basically an updated capsule that sort of hearkens back to the days of the Apollo program or Gemini, if you can remember that. And so this is a thing that Boeing should be able to nail. It's not that complicated. But there has been problem after problem for years, even before this launch - problems with computers, problems with the parachutes used to land.

Finally, they did launch, and two more problems popped up. First, there were several leaks in a helium system that is part of the system that allows the spacecraft to maneuver.

FADEL: Oh.

BRUMFIEL: And then there were separate problems with the thrusters, which are also used to return to Earth. Now, Boeing says this is a test flight. They say none of this prevents this spacecraft from going back if it needs to. But NASA has stayed very quiet about the whole thing. They haven't said anything publicly since a week ago. They're continuing their safety analysis, and they say they'll provide an update later today. So maybe we'll hear their thoughts then.

FADEL: OK. Geoff, Boeing has had numerous problems with its airplanes. Are they related to problems with the spaceship?

BRUMFIEL: You know, a lot of people think so. I spoke to Ron Epstein. He's an analyst at Bank of America who's tracked Boeing for decades. He says this is a real cultural problem at the company right now.

RON EPSTEIN: You have management teams over a number of years that have focused more on shareholder return than the core engineering business of the company.

BRUMFIEL: Whether it's passenger jets or spaceships, these safety issues just keep coming up. And it seems like this is something that could really hurt Boeing in the long run.

FADEL: OK. So getting back to the situation in space, do we know how these two astronauts are holding up up there?

BRUMFIEL: Well, these aren't just any astronauts. Their names are Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. They are veterans of the space program, and they're both former Navy test pilots. These two cucumbers are pretty cool. So they've done some interviews from the station. And they haven't spoken directly about this, but they have sort of spoken in general terms about being up there. Here's Suni Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNI WILLIAMS: Life on Earth is really the best thing ever, and we'll be happy to go back home when it's our time to go back home.

BRUMFIEL: You know, they got a pretty good view up there. I think they're just trying to enjoy it while they can. And NASA is going to get them home one way or another. They have other spacecraft they can use. They have other ways of bringing Wilmore and Williams home if they really decide the Starliner isn't safe to fly.

FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

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Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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