- Boeing launched its new CST-100 Starliner spaceship for NASA astronauts into orbit for the first time on Friday, though the maiden flight suffered a major glitch.
- The uncrewed vehicle was supposed to dock with the International Space Station on Saturday morning. However, the Starliner began flying wildly off course shortly after separating from its rocket ride.
- Officials couldn’t immediately say what happened, but a clock error, the spaceship’s autopilot system, and a communications dropout may have botched the original mission.
- NASAAdministrator Jim Bridenstine said that astronauts – had any been on board – would have not only been safe but also able to step in and override the autopilot.
- The Starliner (and its crash-test-dummy passenger) is now in a stable orbit. Officials say the new mission is to safely land the ship at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico on Sunday.
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For a little while on Friday morning, the maiden flight of the CST-100 Starliner spaceship, a vehicle that Boeing designed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from orbit, seemed to be going very smoothly.
The Starliner had no people on board – just cargo and a crash-test dummy named Rosie – when it lifted off at 6:36 a.m. ET atop an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance. The spaceship separated from the rocket 15 minutes later, then coasted for another 16 minutes, waiting for just the right moment to ignite its main engines and fly toward the International Space Station (ISS).
But that key moment to fire Starliner’s engines came and went.
Boeing eventually recovered control of the Starliner, fired its main engines, and accelerated their ship into a “stable” orbit, NASA wrote in a blog post. After some huddling, both Boeing and NASA officials held a press conference at the launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to share what they’d learned about the anomaly.
“A lot of things went right,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during his opening remarks, adding the Starliner made it to orbit – just not the correct one. “This is why we test.”
What apparently did not go right, though, was the ticking of a crucial clock that helps the Starliner know where it is in its flight.
Bridenstine said this timing error led the spaceship’s autopilot system to believe it was farther along in the mission than it actually was. This glitch then kicked off a series of manoeuvres that weren’t yet supposed to happen, putting the mission at risk.
“We don’t know what the root cause is. I think it’s too early for us to make that assessment,” Bridenstine said.
Why the Starliner can’t make it to the space station and will instead land in New Mexico
The Starliner’s autopilot never fired the main engines, a panel of officials said during Friday’s briefing.
But because of the timing error, Starliner’s autopilot assumed the main engines were ignited – so the system fired many smaller thrusters around the hull of the ship to keep the ship in a position it didn’t yet need to be in. During this unexpected manoeuvring too soon in the flight, the Starliner begin blowing through fuel reserves.
Officials also said a signal sent from the ground to the Starliner instructing the ship to ignite its main engines – since the automated system failed to do so – never reached the spaceship, likely because of a temporary gap in satellite communications.
The Starliner was supposed to dock with the ISS on Saturday morning, drop off food and holiday presents, stay for about a week, and then return to Earth for analysis with Rosie the dummy inside.
By the time mission controllers regained contact with the ship, though, they decided there wasn’t enough fuel left to reach the space station; the smaller thrusters had consumed about 25% of it. So they cut their losses and put the Starliner on a less-fuel-hungry trajectory to land at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.
Bridenstine said the change “was the absolute right decision” to make in the heat of the moment, hinting the spacecraft might have otherwise reentered Earth’s atmosphere – though he insisted no astronauts would have been in danger during the flight.
“There was no time at which they would have been unsafe during any of this. And had they been on board, we … very well could be on our way to the International Space Station right now,” Bridenstine said.
By this, he meant the NASA astronauts Mike Fincke or Nicole Mann, who are scheduled to fly aboard the first crewed mission, along with the Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, might have overridden the Starliner’s autopilot, initiated the engine burn, and put the ship on course for the ISS.
“We have the capability on board to stop that automation and take over manually to fly,” Mann said.
It’s now uncertain when Boeing will try to fly astronauts for the first time
Boeing privately developed the CST-100 Starliner, but its work was funded by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The government competition hopes to resurrect US spaceflight capability that was lost when it retired the space-shuttle fleet in July 2011, but with commercial vehicles.
In March, the fellow program member SpaceX (a longtime rival of Boeing and ULA) successfully launched and landed its Crew Dragon spaceship for NASA on a similar demonstration mission, called Demo-1. An abort-engine test months later ended in an explosion, but SpaceX is now on track launch its first astronauts no sooner than February 2020.
This month’s Orbital Flight Test by Boeing, after years of delays, was designed to show NASA that the Starliner is safe to fly astronauts sometime in mid-2020.
“Orbit is hard. Best wishes for landing & swift recovery to next mission,” Musk tweeted in Friday in response to a NASA status update.
Bridenstine said it was too soon to know if Boeing would need to launch another uncrewed test mission, or if salvaging the current one might check all the boxes Boeing needs to start launching people. With the latter, Starliner could fly Ferguson, Fincke, and Mann without having demonstrated its automated docking system in space.
Bridenstine said NASA’s far-larger space shuttle manually docked for decades with the ISS without issue. Steve Stich, the NASA program’s deputy manager, said on Friday that not seeing a docking yet shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
“It’s something that is nice to have, but I wouldn’t say it’s a requirement for crewed flights,” Stich said.
Getting the clock timing, autopilot, satellite, and any other causes resolved is, of course, something Boeing will have to do to satisfy NASA.
“This is why we flight test, right?” Fincke said during the briefing. “We’re trying to get all of the bugs, if you will, out of the system.”
Boeing plans to put the Starliner through as many paces as it can over the next 48 hours, then land the spaceship in New Mexico sometime on Sunday.