Suni Williams and Barry Wilmore are not in danger

Suni Williams and Barry Wilmore are not in danger
Astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry Wilmore onboard the International Space Station in April 2007 and October 2014, respectively. Credit: NASA

NASA said earlier this week it will postpone the return of Boeing’s crew capsule Starliner back to ground from the International Space Station (ISS), thus leaving astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams onboard the orbiting platform for (at least) two weeks more.

The glitch is part of Starliner’s first crewed flight test, and clearly it’s not going well. But to make matters worse there seems to be little clarity about the extent to which it’s not going well. There are at least two broad causes. The first is NASA and Boeing themselves. As I set out in The Hindu, Starliner is already severely delayed and has suffered terrible cost overruns since NASA awarded Boeing the contract to build it in 2014. SpaceX has as a result been left to pick up the tab, but while it hasn’t minded the fact remains that Elon Musk’s company currently monopolises yet another corner of the American launch services market.

Against this backdrop, neither NASA nor Boeing — but NASA especially — have been clear about the reason for Starliner’s extended stay at the ISS. I’m told fluid leaks of the sort Starliner has been experiencing are neither uncommon nor dire, that crewed orbital test flights can present such challenges, and that it’s a matter of time before the astronauts return. However, NASA’s press briefings have featured a different explanation: that Starlier’s stay is being extended on purpose — to test the long-term endurance of its various components and subsystems in orbit ahead of operational flights — echoing something NASA discussed when SpaceX was test-flying its Dragon crew capsule (hat-tip to Jatan Mehta). According to Des Moines Register, the postponement is to “deconflict” with space walks NASA had planned for the astronauts and to give them and their peers already onboard the ISS to further inspect Starliner’s propulsion module.

This sort of suspiciously ex post facto reasoning has also raised concerns NASA knows something about Starliner but doesn’t plan on revealing what until after the capsule has returned — with the added possibility that it’s shielding Boeing to prevent the US government from cancelling the Starliner contract altogether.

The second broad reason is even more embarrassing: media narratives. On June 24, Economic Times reported NASA had “let down” and “disappointed” Wilmore and Williams when it postponed Starliner’s return. Newsweek said the astronauts were “stranded” on the ISS together with a NASA statement further down the article saying they weren’t stranded. The Spectator Index tweeted Newsweek’s report without linking to it but with the prefix “BREAKING”. There are many other smaller news outlets and YouTube channels with worse headlines and claims feeding a general sense of disaster.

However, I’m willing to bet a large sum of money Wilmore and Williams are neither “disappointed” nor feeling “let down” by Starliner’s woes. In fact NASA and Boeing picked these astronauts over greenhorns because they’re veterans of human spaceflight who are aware of and versed with handling uncertainties in humankind’s currently most daunting frontier. Recall also the Progress cargo capsule failure in April 2015, which prompted Russia to postpone a resupply mission scheduled for the next month until it could identify and resolve some problems with the launch vehicle. Roscosmos finally flew the mission in July that year. The delay left astronauts onboard the ISS with dwindling supplies as well as short of a crew of three.

The term “strand” may also have a specific meaning: after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003, NASA instituted a protocol in which astronauts onboard faulty crew capsules in space could disembark at the ISS, where they’d be “stranded”, and wait for a separate return mission. By all means, then, if Boeing is ultimately unable to salvage Starliner, the ISS could undock it and NASA could commission SpaceX to fly a rescue mission.

I can’t speak for Wilmore and Williams but I remain deeply sceptical that they’re particularly bummed. Yet Business Today drummed up this gem: “’Nightmare’: Sunita Williams can get lost in space if thrusters of NASA’s Boeing Starliner fail to fire post-ISS undocking”. Let’s be clear: the ISS is in low-Earth orbit. Getting “lost in space” from this particular location is impossible. Starliner won’t undock unless everyone is certain its thrusters will fire, but even if they don’t, atmospheric drag will deorbit the capsule soon after (which is also what happened to the Progress capsule in 2015). And even if it is Business Today’s (wet) “nightmare”, it isn’t Williams’s.

There’s little doubt the world is in the throes of a second space race. The first happened as part of the Cold War and its narratives were the narratives of the contest between the US and the USSR, rife with the imperatives of grandstanding. What are the narratives of the second race? Whatever they are, they matter as much as rogue nations contemplating weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit matters because narratives are also capable of destruction. They shape the public imagination and consciousness of space missions, the attitudes towards the collaborations that run them, and ultimately what the publics believe they ought to expect from national space programmes and the political and economic value their missions can confer.

Importantly, narratives can cut both ways. For example, for companies like Boeing the public narrative is linked to their reputation, which is linked to the stock market. When BBC says NASA having to use a SpaceX Dragon capsule to return Wilmore and Williams back to Earth “would be hugely embarrassing for Boeing”, the report stands to make millions of dollars disappear from many bank accounts. Of course this isn’t sufficient reason for BBC to withhold its reportage: its claim isn’t sensational and the truth will always be a credible defence against (alleged) defamation. Instead, we should be asking if Boeing and NASA are responding to such pressures if and when they withhold information. It has happened before.

Similarly, opportunist media narratives designed to ‘grab eyeballs’ without considering how they will pollute public debate only vitiate narratives, raise unmerited suspicions of conspiracies and catastrophe, and sow distrust in sober, non-sensational articles whose authors are the ones labouring to present a more faithful picture.