Boeing Starliner astronauts to extend stay at International Space Station. Here's why

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The two NASA astronauts who launched into space from Florida on Boeing Starliner's first historic capsule last week will be extending their stay at the International Space Station (ISS) beyond the original plan.

Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will return to Earth no earlier than Tuesday, June 18, for NASA's Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT) – pending weather and spacecraft readiness – the space agency said. The pair were initially set to only spend about eight days in orbit.

NASA said the additional time in space will allow the crew to perform a spacewalk on Thursday, June 13, while engineers complete system checkouts of the Starliner.

The Boeing Starliner test flight crew successfully lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on June 6 at 10:52 a.m. ET despite some troubleshooting. At least three helium leaks were detected as the crew made its way to the ISS. Boeing said none of the leaks were a safety issue for the crew, vehicle, or the mission.

What's the mission?

As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the crewed flight test is crucial for gathering data on the Starliner system to achieve NASA's certification for regular crewed missions to the orbital complex. The mission includes validating the transportation system, launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, in-orbit operations capabilities, and the ability to safely return to Earth with astronauts aboard. 

Wilmore and Williams are participating in human research studies on the physiological impacts of space flight and carrying some hardware for future studies. Researchers will pay extra attention to how all systems work. 

Why this launch is historic

Though Starliner has previously flown orbital flights to and from the ISS, the two astronauts are making history as the first members aboard the Starliner spacecraft to launch into space.

Williams is also the first female astronaut to fly on the first flight of a crewed spacecraft, according to NASA. 

The launch represents the first crewed mission on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and the first crewed launch on an Atlas-family rocket since Gordon Cooper's "Faith 7" mission in the final Mercury program flight in May 1963, the space agency said.