Space is hard. That’s a refrain we keep hearing. It applies to Boeing’s uncrewed Starliner mission, which launched Friday morning, butas planned because it missed its orbit due to a software glitch.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk knows how challenging it is to escape Earth. He tweeted a message of encouragement to NASA and Boeing on Friday. “Orbit is hard. Best wishes for landing and swift recovery to next mission,” Musk wrote.
Both SpaceX and Boeing are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to bring astronaut launches back to US soil for the first time since the end of the space shuttle era in 2011.
SpaceX already successfullyearlier this year. Boeing was hoping to match SpaceX’s achievement, but a glitch caused Starliner to use up too much fuel. Instead of meeting up with the ISS, Starliner will attempt to come back to Earth early.
It’s unknown how Starliner’s troubles might impact Boeing and NASA’s plans for sending humans to the ISS. SpaceX is currently putting its Crew Dragon systems through safety testing with an eye on an astronaut launch in early 2020.
According to The Verge, Starliner is at least in space, and circulating Earth. It’s just not at the altitude it was supposed to reach in order to meet up with the International Space Station — the spacecraft’s planned destination.
The source of the problem was a glitch in the Starliner’s internal clock, which caused the vehicle to register a different time than it actually was. That threw off all the maneuvers the Starliner was supposed to do to make it to its intended orbit. Now, there’s no chance that the Starliner will rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station.
“That’s safe to take off the table at this point,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference following the launch. “It’s not worth doing given the amount of fuel we burned.”
NASA and Boeing are working together to figure out what to do next with the spacecraft. Since the Starliner cannot reach the ISS, Boeing is going to try to bring it safely home, demonstrating how it will land on future missions.
It’s possible that Starliner will return to Earth and land at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the next 48 hours. However, that’s not official yet, and Boeing says it will provide updates on what the team decides.
Today’s botched launch is a big blow for both NASA and Boeing, which have been working for years to get to this flight. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is a critical part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, an initiative to develop private US vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
During today’s test flight, Boeing planned to demonstrate Starliner’s ability to travel to space and dock with the station. If it had gone well, the mission could have paved the way for NASA astronauts to fly on the Starliner sometime next year. Now that timeline is in question.
The trouble began about 30 minutes after the Starliner had launched. The capsule took off on top of an Atlas V rocket, made by the United Launch Alliance, at 6:36 am ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket seemed to work just fine, with the Atlas V successfully dropping off the Starliner where it needed to go. However, the Starliner did not perform as it was supposed to once it had separated from its ride.
For most space launches, a rocket will take its payload all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V deployed the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule lapping around Earth indefinitely.
The whole situation was compounded by a communications issue, too. Once they realized that Starliner wasn’t burning its engines, the engineering team tried to send a command to jumpstart the process. The only problem: Starliner was in a communications dead zone, too far from satellites that would have relayed the commands to the spacecraft. So it didn’t receive the notification from the ground in time. By the time they did reestablish communication it was too late, and Boeing decided to take Starliner into a different orbit — one that would make it easier for the vehicle to come home in a few days.
NASA and Boeing insisted that had a crew been on board, they could have taken control of the situation. “We have the capability on board to stop the automation and take over manually to fly,” Nicole Mann, a NASA astronaut slated to fly on the first test flight of the Starliner next year, said during a press conference.
She noted that they could have stopped the thrusters from firing, preventing all that fuel loss. They could have also manually started the engine burn themselves. Mann also claimed if they were on board right now, they could still come back home just fine. “We have the capability to live on board for an extended period of time,” she said. They also could take over the entire process of landing if needed.