Boeing Starliner experiencing helium leaks after 2 astronauts launched to space station from Florida

Nearly 12 hours after Boeing successfully launched two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from Florida aboard its Starliner spacecraft, NASA said its teams had identified three helium leaks on the spacecraft. 

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket lifted off at 10:52 a.m. ET on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, with NASA astronauts Sunita "Suni" Williams, 58, and Barry "Butch" Wilmore, 61, on board.

"Now, Butch and Suni do what they do best! They're test pilots, and they're going to test this thing from izard to gizzard," said NASA administrator Bill Nelson during a news conference a few hours after the launch. 

The two were expected to reach the orbiting laboratory at 12:15 p.m. EDT on Thursday after a 25-and-a-half-hour journey. NASA's Johnson Space Center posted on X that the crew continued the mission despite the reported leaks and were in a "sleep period" just after 11 p.m.

NASA said one of the three leaks was known and discussed before the flight, along with a management plan, while the other two occurred after the spacecraft entered orbit around Earth. 

"Two of the affected helium valves have been closed, and the spacecraft remains stable," NASA said.

Veteran NASA astronauts Wilmore and Williams helped build Starliner and waited for years to fly it. The capsule is carrying around 760 pounds of cargo to the ISS, and when it docks, the real work begins.

"It’s easy to get impatient. It's easy to get tired. I was so impressed with the professionalism, the whole team, the way they kept their priorities in the proper order to make sure they were ready to go today." Said Ken Bowersox, who’s the associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. 


NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore, left, and Suni Williams, right,, are seen as they prepare to depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building for Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to board the Boeing CST-100 Starline

It wasn’t easy for Boeing, ULA, or NASA to get here. Wednesday’s launch was the third attempt with astronauts onboard since early May, coming after a pair of rocket-related problems, most recently last weekend. A small helium leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system also caused delays, but managers decided the leak was manageable and not a safety issue.

Starliner is 10 years in the making and years behind schedule, costing Boeing more than a billion dollars in losses, according to reports.

"It’s been a long time coming, and we're really, really proud of the team that got us here," said Mark Nappi, who manages Boeing’s commercial crew space program. 

NASA didn’t give up on the program because they needed a second vehicle to get astronauts to and from space.


During this test flight, Boeing crews will also monitor a helium leak about the size of a softball.

"That was right where we left it when we had the countdown on June 1, no change in the leak rate at all," said Steve Stich, who manages NASA’s commercial crew program. 

They found the leak in May and couldn’t seal it completely. During the week-long mission, the astronauts will also manually fly the Starliner and test its life support capabilities when docked at the space station. 

"We look forward to an outstanding mission," said Joel Montalbano, who’s the deputy associate administrator with NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.

Starliner and its astronauts will remain at the ISS for about a week before returning to Earth.

What's the Starliner mission?

According to Boeing, this launch will demonstrate the Starliner's launch-to-landing capabilities and "prove the team’s readiness to achieve NASA certification and fly long-duration missions for the agency." 

Williams and Wilmore will participate in human research studies on the physiological impacts of space flight and carry some hardware for future studies. Because this is Boeing's Crew Flight Test (CFT), researchers will pay extra attention to how all systems work. 

How long will Suni and Butch be on the International Space Station?

It will take Wilmore and Williams about 26 hours to reach the ISS, where they will stay for about a week.

Why this launch is historic

Per NASA: "Williams is the first female astronaut to fly on the first flight of a crewed spacecraft. It also marks the first crewed launch on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and the first crewed launch on an Atlas family class rocket since Gordon Cooper on the last Mercury program flight aboard "Faith 7" in May 1963. "