Boeing's astronaut capsule flies off course, fate uncertain after launch debut

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft lifts off atop ULA's Atlas V rocket on its orbital launch debut. (Richard Angle)

Roughly 30 minutes after lifting off for the first time on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule suffered a major failure when it attempted to raise its orbit with onboard engines.

A few hours after the failure came to light, NASA and Boeing held a press conference to update members of the media on the situation, with the space agency offering some candid – if a bit odd – insight into Starliner’s anomalous launch debut. Before the spacecraft’s software threw a wrench into the gears, the plan was for Starliner to separate from ULA’s Atlas V Centaur upper stage and use its own thrusters to reach orbit and begin the trek up Earth’s gravity well to the International Space Station (ISS).

While it will likely take weeks or even months for Boeing and NASA to determine exactly what went wrong during the mission, preliminary information has already begun to paint a fairly detailed picture.

Around 15 minutes after liftoff, Starliner separated from the rocket as intended but it appears that things began to go awry almost immediately afterward. Most notably, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine’s tweets and later comments, a very early look at the telemetry suggests that Starliner’s internal clock was somehow tricked into believing that the time was either earlier or later than it actually was.

Thinking that it was in the midst of a lengthy thruster firing meant to raise its orbit and send the spacecraft on its way to the space station, Starliner was thus focused on ensuring that it was pointed as accurately as possible. Although the space station is the size of a football field, in the vastness of space, rendezvousing with it is a bit like threading a needle. While firing thrusters to do so, spacecraft thus need to point themselves as accurately as possible.

While coasting before or after one of those orbit-boosting thruster firings, Starliner thought it was actually burning towards the space station and was thus very carefully controlling its orientation with a dozen or so smaller thrusters. In short, those unintentional thruster firings burned through a ton of Starliner’s limited propellant supply – enough to make it impossible (or nearly so) for the spacecraft to rendezvous and dock the ISS, a central purpose of this particular launch.

A long-exposure of Starliner’s Atlas V launch debut. (Richard Angle)

This ultimately means that Starliner is leaning heavily on the “test” aspect of this Orbital Flight Test (OFT), uncovering failure modes and bugs that Boeing was clearly unable to tease out with ground testing and simulation. While in a totally different ballpark, SpaceX similar Crew Dragon spacecraft suffered its own major failure earlier this year, although that capsule explosion occurred during intentional ground testing, whereas Starliner’s software failed during its high-profile launch debut and has severely curtailed the scope of the spacecraft’s first orbital flight test.

In fact, Bridenstine was unable to rule out the possibility that Boeing will have to attempt a second uncrewed orbital flight test (OFT) before Starliner will be qualified to launch the space agency’s astronauts. Although early signs suggest that Boeing will still be able to attempt to deorbit and recover the spacecraft a day or two from now, the fact that Starliner will not be able to perform critical demonstrations of its ISS rendezvous and docking capabilities will make it far harder for NASA to rationally certify the spacecraft for astronaut launches.

Crew Dragon approaches the ISS during its March 2019 Demo-1 launch debut. (NASA)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, for reference, completed a more or less flawless launch, orbit raise, and rendezvous before docking with the ISS. It’s almost impossible to imagine NASA giving SpaceX permission to proceed immediately into its first astronaut launch if Crew Dragon had failed to reach the proper orbit or dock with the space station.

Regardless, it’s far too early to tell whether Boeing will have to repeat Starliner’s OFT. If Starliner performs absolutely perfectly between now and its planned soft-landing in New Mexico, there might be a chance that NASA will still allow Boeing to effectively cut corners to its astronaut launch debut, but only time will tell.

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Boeing's astronaut capsule flies off course, fate uncertain after launch debut
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