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Will Elon Musk’s SpaceX ‘Rescue’ Sunita Williams from Space after Starliner’s Helium Leak?

SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, may be able to step in to save Sunita Williams and her coworker Butch Wilmore, who were left stranded at the International Space Station (ISS) following concerning helium leaks on their Boeing Starliner.

Astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams launched on the Starliner on June 5, expecting a nine-day mission at the ISS. However, helium leaks have left their return date uncertain, prompting NASA to seek solutions. Earlier they were supposed to return on July 2 and now the re-entry has been further delayed.

Can Elon Musk’s SpaceX be tasked to rescue Sunita Williams?

Boeing-rival SpaceX may ultimately be tasked with bringing them home aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. However, this development is expected to be a significant blow to Boeing, which has already faced approximately $1.5 billion in cost overruns beyond its initial $4.5 billion NASA contract. As it comes as a big setback to make Starliner a viable option for ISS missions.

Despite the severity of the situation, reports suggest NASA and Boeing officials have downplayed the need for SpaceX’s involvement. They insist that the current issues with the Starliner do not necessitate intervention. Nevertheless, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which recently ferried four astronauts to the ISS in March, remains ready for the task. It can accommodate two to four passengers and can fit additional occupants in an emergency.

Since 2020, SpaceX has been the sole commercial company approved to transport astronauts and cargo to the ISS. This situation underscores the competition and challenges within the commercial spaceflight sector.

What next for Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore?

Astronauts Wilmore and Williams will stay aboard the ISS until at least July 2 as officials investigate the helium leaks affecting the Starliner, which remains docked at the station. Michael Lembeck, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a former Boeing spaceflight consultant, told NY Post that he believes that the Starliner will still likely be the astronauts’ return vehicle. “Right now, I’d say the need for SpaceX to step up is very low,” Lembeck said. “We would have to see a big problem come up in the next couple of days to warrant that reaction.”

NASA’s decision to delay the astronauts’ return allows more time to study the Starliner while it’s still attached to the ISS, ensuring a thorough understanding of what went wrong. The capsule carrying the astronauts will make it back to Earth, but the service module, which houses the engines, fuel, and helium tanks, will not.

With ample helium gas remaining, officials assure that Wilmore and Williams can still fly home despite the leaks if any dire issues arise aboard the ISS.

A big setback for Boeing’s space mission

Experts also feel, NASA may be weary as a rescue mission involving SpaceX would suggest serious, potentially life-threatening hardware defects with the Starliner.

The last time NASA needed external help to bring an astronaut home was in 2022, when a Russian Soyuz capsule leak stranded American astronaut Frank Rubio. Although NASA considered SpaceX for that rescue, Rubio returned on an empty Soyuz capsule launched by Russia, extending his mission to a record-breaking 371 days.

Boeing’s hopes of making Starliner the second option for NASA scientists to reach the ISS face a significant setback with this incident. The aerospace giant’s struggles highlight the high stakes and challenges of commercial spaceflight.

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