Boeing’s Starliner space taxi blasted off for the first time today on an uncrewed mission to the International Space Station, but ran into a problem that precluded a space station rendezvous.
The anomaly is sure to complicate preparations for the crewed Starliner mission that’s supposed to follow up on the uncrewed test flight. But NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the crewed mission could go ahead as planned without first having to do another uncrewed test.
“I think it’s too early for us to make that assessment,” Bridenstine said at a post-launch news conference.
The flight test got off to a picture-perfect start at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida with Starliner’s liftoff atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Launch came just before sunrise, at 6:36 a.m. ET (3:36 a.m. PT).
“Liftoff! The rise of Starliner and a new era of human spaceflight!” Boeing launch commentator Josh Barrett said.
The two-stage Atlas 5 put Starliner into position to continue its ascent to orbit, but after spacecraft separation, an orbital insertion burn didn’t go according to plan.
“We have had an off-nominal insertion,” Boeing mission commentator Steve Siceloff reported. He said the spacecraft was in a “stable position, and it’s fully powered.”
Later, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that an anomaly involving a system that keeps track of the mission elapsed time caused the spacecraft “to believe that it was in an orbital insertion burn, when it was not.”
That anomaly caused Starliner’s attitude control system to burn more fuel than anticipated, in an effort to fine-tune the spacecraft’s trajectory. By the time the problem could be corrected, there wasn’t enough fuel left to boost Starliner into the right orbit for a space station rendezvous.
Bridenstine said the situation may have been complicated by a temporary loss of contact with Starliner, due to a gap in NASA’s TDRS satellite communications system.
Once mission managers were able to upload new instructions, they put Starliner into a stable orbit that will lead to a landing on Sunday. Officials at NASA and Boeing worked to meet as many of the test flight’s objectives as they could without flying to the space station.
Today’s mission was meant to set the stage for Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann to fly to the station in early 2020. NASA and the White House are anxious to get U.S.-made spacecraft flying to the space station for the first time since the space shuttles were retired in 2011.
“We’re going to launch American rockets and spacecraft from American soil to get American astronauts to the International Space Station,” NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard told GeekWire in a pre-launch interview. “And in the scheme of things, it’s really a major step for our space economy.”
For years, Boeing has been developing Starliner — and SpaceX has been developing its Crew Dragon capsule — as commercial transports for NASA astronauts. Once those space taxis are in full operation, NASA will be able to phase out the tens of millions of dollars paid out to the Russians for each seat the agency buys on Soyuz spacecraft. Those fares will go to Boeing and SpaceX instead.
NASA also expects Boeing and SpaceX to attract private-sector customers. “We’re trying to expand the economy in low Earth orbit, and at the same time work to lower the costs and increase the access to more people and more science than ever before in space,” Morhard explained.
Starliner’s uncrewed mission was meant to serve as a dress rehearsal, not only for journeys by NASA astronauts but for commercial space trips as well.
Rosie and Snoopy take a ride
This time around, the closest thing to an onboard crew member was an instrument-laden test dummy nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer. The mannequin, officially known as an “anthropomorphic test device,” was outfitted in a blue Boeing spacesuit for the weeklong trip. It also wore a red head scarf as a tribute to Rosie the Riveter, the muscle-flexing World War II icon.
A similar test dummy, nicknamed Ripley, was strapped inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for its first uncrewed test flight to the space station and back in March. Crew Dragon carried a “Little Earth” plush toy as a zero-G indicator, and Starliner carried a plush Astronaut Snoopy doll to serve a similar role.
The original plan called for Starliner to dock with the space station’s U.S.-built Harmony module on Saturday. After offloading about 600 pounds of cargo, the space station crew would have set loose Starliner for a parachute-assisted, airbag-cushioned landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on Dec. 28.
Although this Starliner can no longer make it to the space station, it’s currently on the right path to touch down at White Sands on Sunday.
The rocky road ahead
One of the top priorities ahead is to determine how Starliner’s timing anomaly arose. Boeing executive Jim Chilton said his team was still working to understand the problem’s root cause.
“Clearly we missed something with this time. … We didn’t see it in any of our simulations that we did,” Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters.
Bridenstine noted that if there had been astronauts aboard Starliner, they might have been able to put the craft into the right orbit for the planned space station rendezvous. Fincke and Mann agreed with that assessment.
“We train extensively for this type of contingency,” Mann said. “Had we been on board, there could have been actions that we could have taken.”
Boeing and NASA will take a close look at Starliner and its onboard data once it lands. A different craft will carry the first crew, but the spacecraft for the uncrewed flight is supposed to be refurbished for use by the following crew. Chilton said there’s a good chance that post-landing refurbishment can proceed as planned.
Separately, SpaceX is scheduled to conduct an in-flight abort test of a Crew Dragon spacecraft no earlier than Jan. 11. The results of that test will determine when NASA astronauts can fly on the Crew Dragon for the first time.
The first crew to launch on a U.S.-built spacecraft from U.S. soil will be able to collect a special memento that Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson left behind on the space station he was the commander of the last space shuttle mission in 2011: a small American flag.
Ferguson — who went from NASA to Boeing shortly after that flight — said he never thought it’d take this long for someone to capture that flag. “It’s been a long time,” he told reporters gathered near Kennedy Space Center’s countdown clock. “It’s been eight and a half years, far too long in my opinion.”
Update for 1:15 p.m. PT Dec. 20: This report has been updated to reflect the decision to bring Starliner back for a touchdown at White Sands Missile Range “on or about Dec. 22.”