Much Awaited smooth launch unexpectedly turned into a bad flight
The initial flight of Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, went through a major setback this morning, after the vehicle failed to make it to the right orbit when it launched to space. No people were on the vehicle during the test flight. Though, the failure calls into question the Starliner’s prospect and how long it will take for the team to recuperate from the mishap.
For the time being, Starliner is at least in space, and orbiting Earth. It’s just not at the height it was supposed to reach in order to link with the International Space Station — the spacecraft’s intended destination. The source of the problem was a malfunction in the Starliner’s internal clock, which caused the vehicle to list a different time than it actually was. That threw off all the plans the Starliner was supposed to do to make it to its planned orbit. Currently, there’s no chance that the Starliner will engage and dock with the International Space Station.
The task was unmanned, with only one non-human crew member on board for the test flight: a dummy called Rosie.
The test mission was a dummy run for next year’s planned introductory launch with astronauts. It is part of NASA’s plans to end reliance on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to transport supplies and astronauts to the ISS.
Apart from Rosie, who is installed with sensors to make sure the trip is safe for humans, the spacecraft is carrying Christmas presents and treats for the six astronauts presently at the ISS.
“THAT’S SAFE TO TAKE OFF THE TABLE AT THIS POINT.”
“That’s safe to take off the table at this point,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press conference after the launch. “It’s not worth doing given the quantity of fuel we burned.”
Boeing and NASA are working together to work out what to do next with the spaceship. Since the Starliner cannot dock with the ISS, Boeing is going to try to get it safely home, representing how it will land on upcoming missions. It’s possible that Starliner will come back to Earth and land at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the following 48 hours. Though that’s not official yet, and Boeing says it will give updates on what the team decides.
Today’s failed launch is a big setback for both NASA and Boeing, which have been working for years to get to this launch. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is a significant part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, a venture to develop private US vehicles to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In today’s test flight, Boeing planned to prove Starliner’s ability to travel to space and dock with the station. If it had gone fine, the mission could have paved the way for NASA astronauts to fly on the Starliner at some time next year. However due to the botch, now that timeline is in question.
The trouble started about 30 minutes after the Starliner had launched. The capsule left the ground on top of an Atlas V rocket, prepared by the United Launch Alliance, at 6:36 AM ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket appeared to work just fine, with the Atlas V successfully letting off the Starliner where it was required to go. Though, the Starliner did not carry out as it was supposed to once it had detached from its ride.
For most of the space launches, a rocket will take its load all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V positioned the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule passing around Earth indefinitely. Except it ignited its own engines advancing itself into an actual orbit, the Starliner would ultimately fall back into the ocean. This plan was a mindful decision made by the Starliner team. The plan was to drop the capsule off closer to Earth — a precautionary measure added just in case there ever was an tragedy on future flights with crew on board. That would make it stress-free for the team to terminate the launch and come home more comfortably and easily.
Getting Starliner to orbit meant the capsule unconditionally had to ignite its own engines at a particular time in order to rise higher into space. But that didn’t take place, thanks to Starliner’s out of order clock. Because the vehicle was on an inexact timescale, the Starliner “thought” it had already accomplished its ignition. So the main engines didn’t fire when they were supposed to. Though, separate smaller thrusters did blaze, as if the main engine had ignited, in order to stabilise the vehicle as it climbed to space (which it wasn’t really doing). That eventually burned up too much fuel, stopping the Boeing team from elevating Starliner’s orbit far enough to reach the space station.
The whole situation was fueled by a communications issue, too. Once they understood that Starliner wasn’t burning its engines, the engineering team tried to send a command to startup the process. The only issue: Starliner was in a communications dead zone, too distant from satellites that would have transmitted the commands to the spacecraft. So it didn’t receive the notice from the ground in time. By the time they did rebuild communication it was too late, and Boeing decided to take Starliner into a different orbit — one that would make it simpler for the vehicle to come back home in a few days.
NASA and Boeing claim that had a crew been on board, they could have taken charge of the situation. “We have the ability on board to stop the automation and take over physically to fly,” Nicole Mann, a NASA astronaut scheduled to fly on the first test flight of the Starliner next year, said in a press conference. She mentioned that they could have discontinued the thrusters from firing, avoiding all that fuel loss. They could have also manually started off the engine burn themselves. Mann also said if they were on board right now, they could still get back home just fine. “We have the ability to live on board for a lengthy period of time,” she said. They also could take over the whole process of landing if needed.
Now it’s blurred how Boeing will move onward. First, Boeing needs to get Starliner safely back home, which could happen as sooner as Sunday. The vehicle uses a number of parachutes and airbags to land on solid ground. Representing that capability would indicate a big win for Boeing, since landing is essential to the Starliner’s general performance. But the company won’t get to show docking with the ISS, a significant capability needed to take astronauts to the location. Bridenstine did not mention whether or not Boeing would have to do another uncrewed flight test to demonstrate that operation. “It’s too early to make that evaluation,” Bridenstine said.
“A LOT OF THINGS WENT RIGHT. AND THIS IS, IN FACT, WHY WE TEST.”
Though, Bridenstine said that it’s possible Boeing could do a crewed mission minus demonstrating a docking in space first. “The space shuttle never flew autonomous; it not once did,” said Bridenstine. “So the answer is ‘yes.’ We constructed the space station with the space shuttles. And each single one of those missions was crewed.”
The failure comes at the end of a very challenging year for Boeing, which has been dealing with the blowback from design issues of its 737 MAX aircraft that resulted in two high-profile crashes. The Starliner flight was regarded as a much-needed win for the company. While the vehicle is still healthy and safe, it won’t be performing all of the missions it was supposed to, such as landing with the ISS.
However, Boeing and NASA tried to put a positive turn on what happened today. “A lot of things went right. And this is, in fact, why we test,” Bridenstine said.