Following a successful launch on Friday, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has suffered an unfortunate setback. The capsule has entered the wrong orbit in space. While it currently remains in a “safe and stable” condition, the unmanned craft will no longer be able to fulfill its mission of reaching the International Space Station (ISS).
The incident caps off a tremendously disappointing year for Boeing. The aerospace company, currently dealing with issues surrounding its 737 Max aircraft, was hoping for a successful launch to enter the 2020s in high spirits. Unfortunately, it will be back to the drawing board instead.
Cape Canaveral, We Have a Problem
At 6:36 a.m. ET, Starliner launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop an Atlas V rocket. The initial launch sequence and subsequent takeoff went smoothly. However, about thirty minutes into Starliner’s first test flight, things quickly went south.
During a typical spaceflight, the large first stage of a rocket deploys its payload to Earth orbit. However, Boeing had a plan to do something different with Starliner.
Friday’s launch dropped the capsule off into a lower-than-usual suborbital path around Earth. In theory, this strategy is actually very important. Since Starliner will be manned one day, a lower trajectory allows the craft to fall back into the ocean should something go wrong. Future crews will have an easier time getting the spacecraft back to Earth safely in the event of an emergency.
However, the strategy requires Starliner to ignite its own engines perfectly to keep climbing into space and reach its eventual destination. That was the problem during Friday’s test flight. The Starliner capsule experienced a delayed ignition which hindered the capsule from reaching its desired orbital path.
NASA director Jim Bridenstine weighed in on the matter via Twitter.
Because #Starliner believed it was in an orbital insertion burn (or that the burn was complete), the dead bands were reduced and the spacecraft burned more fuel than anticipated to maintain precise control. This precluded @Space_Station rendezvous.
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 20, 2019
Though it took some time to sort out what happened, Boeing now claims that Starliner is in some sort of Earth orbit—just not the right one. It is currently trying to re-ignite the craft’s engines and elevate it to a higher orbital level.
A NASA update says, “The spacecraft currently is in a stable configuration while flight controllers are troubleshooting.”
Sadly, Starliner won’t be able to reach its target destination of the ISS on this trip. Considering that Boeing’s spacecraft will play a key role in NASA’s Commercial Crew program, the setback is disappointing. Nonetheless, it is important to ensure that the craft is completely safe before using it to send astronauts into space.
A successful test would have paved the way for NASA astronauts to begin flying on Starliner as early as 2020. Obviously, that timeline is now in jeopardy. Boeing will need to go back to the drawing board and figure out both what went wrong and how to fix it.
As of now, it is unclear what will happen next for the Starliner capsule that launched today. Teams may allow it to come careening back to Earth with a splash into the ocean. However, they may also continue monitoring it in orbit to try and salvage the test with as much data as possible.
Regardless, Starliner will need to face a future test before carrying astronauts—whether that occurs in 2020 or later.