KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Crews with NASA and Boeing are working Sunday morning to land the Starliner capsule back to NASA’s testing facility in White Sands, New Mexico, six days earlier than its anticipated arrival.
Instead of docking at the International Space Station for the first time, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule will journey back to Earth 48 hours after launching from Cape Canaveral on its maiden flight into space.
The human-rated spacecraft blasted off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket Friday morning before sunrise, sending the capsule on what was meant to be its first uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station. However, 30 minutes after launch, a software issue caused the Starliner to miss a critical maneuver that would have sent it on its way to the space station, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
The launch from Launch Complex 41 was part of Boeing’s orbital flight test, or OFT mission, during which the spacecraft was scheduled to launch, autonomously dock at the International Space Station and then return to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert.
After the spacecraft separated from the rocket, it should have fired its engines, making an orbital insertion burn that would have placed it into the correct orbit above Earth.
“It’s programmed to do an orbital insertion burn, which is how you go catch the space station and rendezvous,” Boeing’s Vice President of Space and Launch Division Jim Chilton said.
Instead, Boeing and NASA officials said, a clock on the spacecraft was wrong, causing the spacecraft to believe it had already completed the necessary burn.
“Because that timing was a little bit off, what ended up happening is the spacecraft tried to maintain a very precise control that it normally wouldn’t have tried to maintain,” Bridenstine said. “And it burned a lot of (propellant) in that part of the the flight. And when that prop got burnt, it looked like we weren’t going to be able to go ahead and rendezvous with the International Space Station.”
The first astronauts to fly on Starliner as part of the crewed test flight, NASA’s Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, along with NASA-turned-Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, were watching Friday.
Fincke and Mann told reporters at a post-launch news conference that, had they been on board Starliner, they could have possibly righted the ship. They have been training for unknown situations that could creep up during flight. Mann and Fincke said they were not concerned.
“Had we been on board there, there could have been actions that we could have taken. And we will continue to develop those actions,” Mann said. “This vehicle is a new level of automation that we’ve never seen before. And so what we’re really doing is, we’re testing that automation and that’s why you have test pilots on board, especially for these early missions. That’s our job.”
Starliner will return to Earth, landing in White Sands, New Mexico likely around 7 a.m. Sunday instead of bringing about 600 pounds of supplies, including some Christmas presents, to the six astronauts on the space station.
When things began to fall apart, Boeing sent commands to the spacecraft to correct the issues but Chilton said there was a communication delay, possibly because the spacecraft was caught between two satellites.
Boeing officials said the spacecraft is healthy and is expected to land safely.
Bridenstine stressed that this test flight was not a complete failure.
“Today we had a lot of successes,” the top NASA official said. “And I would say one of the biggest successes is watching the NASA team and the Boeing team and the ULA team work together in an off nominal situation to make good decisions that would have been right for our astronauts and right for the country.”
The rocket performed as expected, officials said.
Starliner is one of two spacecraft part of NASA’s commercial crew program undergoing testing to fly U.S. astronauts, hopefully, as soon as next year. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon successfully completed an uncrewed test flight in March.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to the news of the mishap on Twitter.
Orbit is hard. Best wishes for landing & swift recovery to next mission.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2019
Commander Chris Ferguson sent the following statement on Friday night:
While we were off to a perfect on-time launch this morning, as most of you know by now, the team was presented with unique and unanticipated trajectory challenges shortly after we separated from the launch vehicle. By all measures the Atlas/Centaur performed very well. However, a combination of on-board timing issues and challenges commanding the vehicle resulted in an incomplete orbit insertion burn and higher than planned propellant usage.
We are currently in a safe orbit thanks to the timely actions of the Mission Operations and Mission Support Room teams. The professionalism and poise under what have certainly been the most demanding conditions this veteran team has ever experienced is a testament to their pre-flight preparation and training.
We are working several options to recover Spacecraft 3 at one of our Western U.S. landing locations within the next 48 hours and are approaching the next few days with guarded optimism of a successful recovery. Our Landing and Recovery teams are executing their pre-planned contingency deployment to White Sands Missile Range and will be in position by later this evening to make a fully supported recovery.
To coin a golf analogy, anyone can play in the fairway . . . only true champions can win while playing out of the rough. Said another way, we will be judged not by our mistakes, but rather by the poise under pressure we demonstrate as we recover from them. We can do this.