Boeing capsule goes off course, won’t dock at space station

0
625
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft atop lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 20, 2019. Liftoff time was 6:36 a.m., EST. (NASA photograph)
Advertisement

Boeing’s new Starliner capsule went off course after launch Dec. 20 and won’t dock with the International Space Station during its first test flight.

The Starliner was supposed to reach the space station Dec. 21 and stay for a week.

The mission was supposed to be a crucial dress rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts.

The blastoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla., went flawlessly as the Atlas V rocket lifted off with the Starliner capsule. But a half-hour into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule didn’t get into the right orbit to reach the space station. The capsule is still in space and will be brought back to Earth, landing in New Mexico as early as Dec. 22.

Boeing is one of two companies hired by NASA to launch astronauts from the U.S. The space agency has been relying on Russian rockets to travel to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttle almost nine years ago.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a tweet that the capsule burned up more fuel than planned and controllers were using the capsule’s thrusters to raise its orbit.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Dec. 20, 2019, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The uncrewed Orbital Flight Test launched at 6:36 a.m., EST, and is Starliner’s maiden mission to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The mission will serve as an end-to-end test of the system’s capabilities. (NASA photograph by Joel Kowsky)

With less fuel on board, it put the rest of the flight in jeopardy.

Thousands of spectators jammed the area, eager to witness Starliner’s premiere flight. The United Launch Alliance rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and was visible for at least five minutes, its white contrail a brilliant contrast against the dark sky. The mood quickly turned somber as news of the setback trickled out. NASA officials deferred to Boeing for updates.

“Safe and stable is the important thing right now,” Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Kaplan told reporters.

This was Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew provider that successfully completed https://www.aerotechnews.com/blog/2019/03/11/spacex-crew-capsule-ends-test-flight-with-ocean-splashdown/. SpaceX has one last hurdle — a launch abort test — before carrying two NASA astronauts in its Dragon capsule, possibly by spring.

A successful Starliner demo could have seen Boeing launching astronauts by summer. But that might not be possible now.

The U.S. needs companies competing like this, Bridenstine said Dec. 19, to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people. He stressed the need for more than one company in case of problems that kept one grounded.

The space agency handed over station deliveries to private businesses, first cargo and then crews, in order to focus on getting astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (right), Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance (left), and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine watch as a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onbaord launches from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Dec. 20, 2019, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA photograph by Joel Kowsky)

Commercial cargo ships took flight in 2012, starting with SpaceX. Crew capsules were more complicated to design and build, and parachute and other technical problems pushed the first launches from 2017 to now next year. Last April, a SpaceX crew capsule exploded during a ground test.

It’s been nearly nine years since NASA astronauts have launched from the United States. The last time was July 8, 2011, when Atlantis — now on display at Kennedy Space Center — made the final space shuttle flight.

Since then, NASA astronauts have traveled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency. The Soyuz rides have cost NASA up to $86 million apiece.

Chris Ferguson commanded that last shuttle mission. Now a test pilot astronaut for Boeing and one of the Starliner’s key developers, he’s assigned to the first Starliner crew with NASA’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. All three were at control centers to watch the launch.

Built to accommodate seven, the white capsule with black and blue trim will typically carry four or five people. It’s 16.5 feet tall with its attached service module and 15 feet in diameter.

For the test flight, the Starliner carried Christmas treats and presents for the six space station residents, hundreds of tree seeds similar to those that flew to the moon on Apollo 14, the original air travel ID card belonging to Boeing’s founder and a mannequin named Rosie in the commander’s seat.

The test dummy — named after the bicep-flexing riveter of World War II — wore a red polka dot hair bandanna just like the original Rosie and Boeing’s custom royal blue spacesuit.

The flight was designed to test all systems, from the vibrations and stresses of liftoff to the Dec. 28 touchdown at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with parachutes and air bags to soften the landing. Even the test dummy is packed with sensors.

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann, left, and Michael Fincke, right, and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, center, who are assigned to fly on Boeing’s Crew Flight Test, are seen during a press conference ahead of the Boeing Orbital Flight Test mission, Dec. 19, 2019 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA photograph by Joel Kowsky)

On the eve of the flight, Bridenstine said he’s “very comfortable” with Boeing, despite the prolonged grounding of the company’s 737 Max jets. The spacecraft and aircraft sides of the company are different, he noted. Boeing has long been involved in NASA’s human spacecraft program, from Project Mercury to the shuttle and station programs.

Boeing began preliminary work on the Starliner in 2010, a year before Atlantis soared for the last time.

In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX made the final cut. Boeing got more than $4 billion to develop and fly the Starliner, while SpaceX got $2.6 billion for a crew-version of its Dragon cargo ship.

NASA wants to make sure every reasonable precaution is taken with the capsules, designed to be safer than NASA’s old shuttles.

“We’re talking about human spaceflight,” Bridenstine cautioned. “It’s not for the faint of heart. It never has been, and it’s never going to be.”

Advertisement