On December 22nd, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule landed safely in New Mexico, after earlier failing to reach orbit.
The capsule was launched on the morning of December 20th. The Starliner, which is being developed for future U.S. astronaut flights, was launched into orbit by the Atlas V booster rocket, from the launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
It failed to reach orbit due to an anomaly that made the machine believe that it was in an orbital insertion burn, when it really wasn’t, making it burn much more fuel early on.
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
Mission personnel attempted to override the programming with commands sent from Earth, but the spacecraft didn’t receive them fast enough, likely because it was between two tracking satellites, Bridenstine said.
About 15 minutes after launch, Starliner was scheduled to complete a 40-second orbital insertion burn that would have evened out its orbit to a circle, allowing it to meet up with the space station. But this stage in the flight didn’t go as planned.
“After launching successfully at 6:36 a.m. Eastern Time Friday on the United Launch Alliance Atlas v rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Boeing Starliner space vehicle experienced an off-nominal insertion,” Boeing spokesperson Kelly Kaplan said.
Boeing is developing Starliner with funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, most notably a $4.2 billion contract that was announced in September 2014. That deal also pays for six operational, crew-carrying flights to and from the ISS.
SpaceX got a similar, $2.6 billion contract at the same time. The California-based company’s Crew Dragon capsule carried out a successful launch, attached itself to the ISS and then landed in the ocean, it was called Demo-1 and took place in March 2019.
During the test flight, the Starliner was supposed to automatically dock with the ISS on December 21, delivering about 270 kg of cargo, including food, clothing and Christmas presents for the crew, on board.
SpaceX, under a similar contract with NASA, received $3.1 billion for the development of its space ship Crew Dragon, which in March had already completed its first unmanned test flight to the station in automatic mode.
Both Boeing and SpaceX plan to carry out manned flights in some part of 2020.
The recent failed attempt to reach orbit, doesn’t mean that progress wasn’t made, however.
The reusable Starliner became the first crew vehicle to touch down on American soil after an orbital trip since the space shuttles retired in July 2011, and the first capsule ever to do so.
NASA’s Apollo and Orion capsules have landed in the ocean, and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft did the same.
“It was an absolute bullseye, better than I think anybody anticipated,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said of the landing during a news conference today. “That’s good for the agency, it’s good for Boeing; that’s good for the United States of America.”
So Starliner ended up circling Earth on its own for about 48 hours and then coming home, leaving key original mission objectives unachieved. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the capsule will have to refly OFT before astronauts can climb aboard, NASA officials said.
Going straight to the Crew Flight Test (CFT), which will carry three astronauts to and from the ISS, is definitely still on the table, NASA Commercial Crew Program deputy manager Steve Stich said during today’s news conference.
“To me, there’s good data out there to suggest that, once we go through it, maybe it’s acceptable to go, next step, fly the Crew Flight Test,” Stich said. “But we have to go through the data first.”
Thus, crewed space travel is still on the agenda.
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