Boeing's Starliner won't reach space station, Nasa says

Unmanned craft out of position after launch, dealing blow to crisis-hit aerospace giant

Boeing's Starliner, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on its test flight to the International Space Station early yesterday.
Boeing's Starliner, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on its test flight to the International Space Station early yesterday. PHOTO: REUTERS

CAPE CANAVERAL (Florida) • Boeing's unmanned Starliner spacecraft failed to reach the International Space Station (ISS) on its debut flight yesterday, dealing a new blow to the crisis-ridden aerospace giant and heaping uncertainty on Nasa's plan to ferry US astronauts on American-made spacecraft.

About 50 minutes after lift-off, the Starliner was reported to be out of position to begin its orbital insertion burn, the last boost into an orbit that would let it dock at the space station.

"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," Mr Jim Bridenstine, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), said in a tweet.

The Starliner was scheduled to rendezvous with the ISS early today. Instead, it is now expected to return to Earth and land at White Sands, New Mexico, on Sunday morning, Nasa and Boeing officials said at a news conference.

The mishap jeopardises US plans for human flights as soon as next year by Boeing, which was hired to ferry astronauts to the ISS as part of Nasa's commercial crew programme, along with Mr Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

Boeing's failure also deepened a sense of crisis around the company, which is already reeling from a nine-month grounding of the 737 Max after two deadly crashes.

Nasa and Boeing planned a news conference yesterday to discuss the Starliner flight.

The space agency handed over station deliveries - first cargo, then crews - to private businesses in order to focus on getting astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars. 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 have pushed the first launches from 2017 to next year.

The Starliner has on board 270kg of cargo for the ISS crew members: food, clothing and radiation-detection equipment, as well as Christmas treats and presents.

The capsule also has on board Rosie, a test mannequin sporting a red polka dot bandanna in a nod to the bicep-flexing Rosie the Riveter, an icon for women who built B-17 bombers during World War II.

Every system on the Starliner was to be tested during the planned eight-day space mission, from the vibrations and stresses of lift-off to the expected Dec 28 predawn touchdown at the US Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Parachutes and air bags were set to soften the capsule's landing. Even the test dummy was packed with sensors.

The capsule can carry as many as seven passengers - in seats that Boeing is eager to sell to other nations and wealthy individuals.

Boeing has long been involved in Nasa's human spacecraft programme - from Project Mercury to the space shuttle and station programmes. The company began preliminary work on the Starliner in 2010, a year before Atlantis soared for the last time.

Nasa has declined to set dates on manned missions, pending the outcome of the Boeing test flight. The agency and SpaceX plan to perform an in-flight abort test of SpaceX's Crew Dragon on Jan 11 from Florida.

The Starliner flight was the second mission to the ISS under Nasa's commercial crew scheme, which is designed to end US reliance on buying seats aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which provided the sole crew transport since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2019, with the headline Boeing's Starliner won't reach space station, Nasa says. Subscribe