- On Friday, Boeing launched its new CST-100 Starliner spaceship built for NASA astronauts into orbit for the first time.
- However, Starliner encountered a problem about half an hour into its flight that prevented the mission from adjusting its course to reach the International Space Station on Saturday morning.
- No people are on board the Starliner – just some cargo and a crash-test dummy named Rosie. It’s a demonstration mission meant to show NASA the ship is safe to carry astronauts.
- SpaceX, a major competitor to Boeing and ULA, completed a similar flight test in March with its Crew Dragon capsule. Yet both companies are years behind schedule in delivering flight-approved spaceships to NASA.
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After years of delays, Boeing has finally launched its first CST-100 Starliner spaceship into a “stable orbit” around Earth.
But about half an hour into the mission, called Orbital Flight Test, an anomaly caused the brand-new spaceship to fly off-course.
The Starliner, which has no crew aboard, lifted off at 6:36 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida, riding atop an Atlas V rocket built by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket. Starliner successfully separated from the rocket about 15 minutes into flight.
“And liftoff! The rise of Starliner in a new era of human spaceflight,” a Boeing commentator said during launch, which aired live on NASA TV.
However, the Starliner was supposed to fire its engines about 31 minutes after lift-off, which would have put it on-course to reach its destination: the International Space Station. The Starliner was expected to dock to dock with the football-field-size laboratory on Saturday at 8:27 a.m. ET.
The moment for the engine burn came and went, though, and it soon became apparent something had gone awry.
Boeing commentators on NASA TV said Starliner had reached a “stable orbit” or “stable position.” They did not say what trajectory the spacecraft was on, though, or whether the mission was recoverable.
“We do have an off-nominal insertion reported. We have spacecraft control. Guidance and control teams are assessing their next manoeuvres,” one commentator said.
NASA later described the situation in a short blog post on Friday.
“Despite launching successfully at 6:36 a.m. EST Friday on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is not in its planned orbit,” NASA said. “The spacecraft currently is in a stable configuration while flight controllers are troubleshooting.”
Boeing posted an update to its website at 8:20 a.m. ET, which suggested the company plans to say more about the glitch during a press briefing some time Friday morning.
In the meantime, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine logged onto Twitter to explain the glitch. He said there was a timekeeping problem with the mission that caused the spacecraft to fire its thrusters at the wrong moment.
“[T]he spacecraft burned more fuel than anticipated to maintain precise control. This precluded @Space_Station rendezvous,” Bridenstine tweeted – indicating the Starliner won’t reach the space station during its mission.
With a rendezvous now out of the question, NASA is likely working with Boeing on a plan to try and safely return the spaceship back to Earth.
Another hiccup for a US return to human spaceflight
No people are riding inside the Starliner. Rather, the spaceship is carrying some food, holiday presents, and a bandana-clad dummy named Rosie (named after Rosie the Riveter), which is simulating an astronaut sitting in one of the spaceship’s five seats.
The program is a competition between private companies for billions of dollars in government spaceflight contracts. Boeing and SpaceX, founded by tech mogul Elon Musk, are the frontrunners.
Boeing’s mission, called Orbital Flight Test, is a crucial dress rehearsal for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that’s meant to show its astronauts can safely ride aboard the vehicle. The latest date Boeing was planning for its inaugural Crewed Flight Test mission was mid-2020.
Back in March, SpaceX – a major rival of Boeing and ULA – successfully launched and landed its Crew Dragon spaceship for NASA on a similar demonstration mission, called Demo-1 (though an abort-engine test months later ended in an explosion). SpaceX aims to launch its first astronauts no sooner than February 2020.
NASA began the program as an effort to get private companies to develop, own, and operate spacecraft that could ferry its astronauts to and from the $US150 billion space station.
The ultimate hope is, as Bridenstine said during a Thursday morning press briefing, to “launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil” for the first time in nearly a decade.
That’s because NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in July 2011. Until a private spaceship proves itself worthy, NASA is stuck in a costly predicament of relying exclusively on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from orbit inside Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA mission managers told Business Insider during a Tuesday press conference that the agency has one more seat on a Soyuz flight booked for around April 2020, though the space agency is looking to buy additional seats for the fall that year and in spring of 2021. This means if no US spaceships fly next year, NASA may be in a bind to fully staff the space station with its astronauts.
This story has been updated with new information.
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