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Boeing’s new Starliner spacecraft is in the wrong orbit during first trip to space

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A smooth launch suddenly turned into a bad flight

An artistic rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner
Image: Boeing

The first flight of Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, suffered a major setback this morning, after the vehicle failed to reach the right orbit when it launched to space. No people were on board the test flight. However, the failure calls into question the Starliner’s future and how long it will take for the team to recover from the mishap.

For now, Starliner is at least in space, and circulating Earth. It’s just not at the altitude it was supposed to reach in order to meet up with the International Space Station — the spacecraft’s planned destination. The source of the problem was a glitch in the Starliner’s internal clock, which caused the vehicle to register a different time than it actually was. That threw off all the maneuvers the Starliner was supposed to do to make it to its intended orbit. Now, there’s no chance that the Starliner will rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station.

“That’s safe to take off the table at this point,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference following the launch. “It’s not worth doing given the amount of fuel we burned.”

NASA and Boeing are working together to figure out what to do next with the spacecraft. Since the Starliner cannot reach the ISS, Boeing is going to try to bring it safely home, demonstrating how it will land on future missions. It’s possible that Starliner will return to Earth and land at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the next 48 hours. However, that’s not official yet, and Boeing says it will provide updates on what the team decides.

Today’s botched launch is a big blow for both NASA and Boeing, which have been working for years to get to this flight. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is a critical part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, an initiative to develop private US vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. During today’s test flight, Boeing planned to demonstrate Starliner’s ability to travel to space and dock with the station. If it had gone well, the mission could have paved the way for NASA astronauts to fly on the Starliner sometime next year. Now that timeline is in question.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner taking off this morning on top of an Atlas V rocket
(NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The trouble began about 30 minutes after the Starliner had launched. The capsule took off on top of an Atlas V rocket, made by the United Launch Alliance, at 6:36AM ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket seemed to work just fine, with the Atlas V successfully dropping off the Starliner where it needed to go. However, the Starliner did not perform as it was supposed to once it had separated from its ride.

For most space launches, a rocket will take its payload all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V deployed the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule lapping around Earth indefinitely. Unless it ignited its own engines boosting itself into an actual orbit, the Starliner would eventually fall back into the ocean. This plan was a conscious decision made by the Starliner team. The idea was to drop the capsule off closer to Earth — a safety measure added just in case there ever was an emergency on future flights with passengers on board. That would make it easier for the crew to abort the launch and come home more easily and comfortably.

Getting Starliner to orbit meant the capsule absolutely had to ignite its own engines at a certain time in order to climb higher into space. But that didn’t happen, thanks to Starliner’s faulty clock. Because the vehicle was on an inaccurate timescale, the Starliner “thought” it had already completed its ignition. So the main engines didn’t fire when they were supposed to. However, separate smaller thrusters did fire, as if the main engine had ignited, in order to steady the vehicle as it climbed to space (which it wasn’t actually doing). That ultimately burned up too much fuel, preventing the Boeing team from raising Starliner’s orbit far enough to reach the space station.

The whole situation was compounded by a communications issue, too. Once they realized that Starliner wasn’t burning its engines, the engineering team tried to send a command to jumpstart the process. The only problem: Starliner was in a communications dead zone, too far from satellites that would have relayed the commands to the spacecraft. So it didn’t receive the notification from the ground in time. By the time they did reestablish communication it was too late, and Boeing decided to take Starliner into a different orbit — one that would make it easier for the vehicle to come home in a few days.

NASA and Boeing maintain that had a crew been on board, they could have taken control of the situation. “We have the capability on board to stop the automation and take over manually to fly,” Nicole Mann, a NASA astronaut slated to fly on the first test flight of the Starliner next year, said during a press conference. She noted that they could have stopped the thrusters from firing, preventing all that fuel loss. They could have also manually started the engine burn themselves. Mann also claimed if they were on board right now, they could still come back home just fine. “We have the capability to live on board for an extended period of time,” she said. They also could take over the entire process of landing if needed.

Now it’s unclear how Boeing will move forward. First, Boeing needs to bring Starliner safely home, which could happen as early as Sunday. The vehicle uses a series of parachutes and airbags to land on solid ground. Demonstrating that capability would mark a big win for Boeing, since landing is crucial to the Starliner’s overall performance. But the company won’t get to demonstrate docking with the ISS, a critical capability needed to bring astronauts to the station. Bridenstine did not say whether or not Boeing would have to do a second uncrewed flight test to demonstrate that maneuver. “It’s too early to make that assessment,” Bridenstine said.

However, Bridenstine said that it’s possible Boeing could do a crewed mission without demonstrating a docking in space first. “The space shuttle never flew autonomous; it never did,” said Bridenstine. “So the answer is ‘yes.’ We built the space station with the space shuttles. And every single one of those missions was crewed.”

The failure comes at the end of a very difficult year for Boeing, which has been dealing with the fallout from design issues of its 737 MAX aircraft that resulted in two high-profile crashes. The Starliner flight was viewed as a much-needed win for the company. While the vehicle is still safe and healthy, it won’t be performing all of the tasks it was supposed to, such as docking with the ISS.

However, NASA and Boeing tried to put a positive spin on what happened today. “A lot of things went right. And this is, in fact, why we test,” Bridenstine said.