A high-tech space capsule malfunctioned Friday morning during its first NASA test mission, temporarily stranding the unmanned spacecraft in the wrong place and dealing a blow to Boeing, its developer.
The failed mission is a setback for NASA as it scrambles to finish work on a pair of new spacecraft that the space agency wants for carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. The new capsules could finally end the American space program’s long reliance on Russian capsules.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner transport launched atop a two-stage Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 6:36 a.m.
The initial phase of the mission went according to plan. A few minutes after launch, NASA announced that the Atlas had completed its burn. United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin consortium that provided the rocket, went on social media to boast of its success.
“We had a successful launch and initial indications are that we demonstrated the launch-vehicle test objectives, performance enhancements and the mission-unique modifications developed for the safety of human spaceflight,” ULA president Tory Bruno said.
NASA expected the Boeing capsule to rendezvous with the International Space Station at its orbit some 250 miles above Earth on Saturday. A successful meet-up could have cleared the way for NASA to use the Starliner to carry astronauts to the space station beginning in mid-2020.
But it was soon apparent that the 15-foot-diameter Starliner had screwed up. “Starliner has an off-nominal insertion, but Boeing has spacecraft control,” NASA announced. “The guidance and control team is assessing their next maneuver.”
It turned out that the 15-ton capsule, which is designed to operate mostly autonomously with very little interaction with a human crew, mistimed the firing of its maneuvering thrusters. The ill-timed burn gobbled up precious fuel.
Now short on gas, the Starliner wasn’t able to maneuver its way to the space station, NASA determined. "It's safe to take off the table at this point, given the amount of fuel that we burned," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a hastily-called news conference.
The good news for Boeing and NASA is that the Starliner, which has been in development since 2010 at a cost of more than $4 billion, is safe where it is, orbiting around 120 miles over Earth. Mission controllers expect to be able to land the capsule at a military missile range in White Sands, New Mexico as early as Sunday.
In the meantime, Boeing and NASA can still conduct some trials with the temporarily stranded capsule. “The team is assessing what test objectives can be achieved,” NASA stated.
Chicago-based Boeing tried to put on a happy face. “We are proud of the team for their professionalism and quick action to protect the vehicle and enable a safe return,” the company stated. “We look forward to reviewing and learning from the data that has been generated from this mission so far.”
But “further root-cause analysis is needed,” Boeing conceded.
SpaceX, which scored a $2-billion NASA contract to develop its own Dragon capsule, remained silent on social media while the Starliner fiasco unfolded. The Hawthorne, California-based rocket company stands the benefit the most from the Starliner’s stranding.
Starliner and Dragon are broadly similar and, under NASA’s plan, would perform the same kinds of missions. Having access to two separate capsule designs, each backing up the other, could help NASA wean itself off of Russia’s Soyuz capsules. The Russian capsules have been the only way to get to and from the International Space Station since NASA retired its last Space Shuttle back in 2011.
SpaceX actually beat Boeing to the station. An unmanned, passenger-capable Dragon docked with the orbital lab back in March. SpaceX expects to carry astronauts for the first time in 2020. If Friday’s mishap delays Starliner’s transition to routine, manned missions, Dragon could in theory take up the slack.
But Dragon has suffered its own accidents. The same capsule that completed the initial hook-up with the International Space Station back in March was destroyed a few weeks later during a botched ground test of its thrusters.
At the Friday press conference, NASA administrator Bridenstine urged calm. The Starliner’s stranding wouldn’t have endangered the crew’s lives had anyone actually been on board, Bridenstine explained. In fact, he said, an on-board crew might have been able to troubleshoot the thruster problem, correcting the capsule’s course before it wasted its fuel.
The NASA administrator declined to say whether Boeing would be able to meet its 2020 deadline for manned flights with Starliner. “I think it's too early for us to make that assessment.”
The U.S. Air Force put an optimistic cap on an anxious day for the American space program, in the form of a social-media post from the 45th Space Wing, which manages the Cape Canaveral launch site. “Trial and error are building blocks to great success,” the wing stated.