CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Boeing’s new Starliner capsule ended up in the wrong orbit after lifting off on its first test flight Friday, a blow to the company’s effort to launch astronauts for NASA next year.
As the company scrambled to understand what happened, NASA canceled the Starliner’s docking with the International Space Station, instead focusing on a hastier than planned return to Earth. The Starliner will parachute into its landing site in the New Mexico desert on Sunday.
Officials stressed the capsule was stable and safe, and that had astronauts been aboard, they would have been in no danger. A crew may have been able to take over control and salvage the mission. The problem was with the Starliner’s mission clock: It was off-kilter, which delayed timed-commands to put the capsule in the right orbit. Engineers worried the problem could resurface during descent.
It was a major setback for Boeing, which had been hoping to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew provider that successfully completed a similar demonstration last March. SpaceX has one last hurdle — a launch abort test — before carrying two NASA astronauts in its Dragon capsule, possibly by spring.
NASA officials did not think Friday’s problem would hold up SpaceX, but said they would need to make sure nothing was in common between the two companies’ on-board mission timers. Ground controllers were puzzled over why the Starliner’s timer was not working properly when the capsule separated from the rocket and began flying freely.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was too soon to know whether Boeing would need to conduct another orbital test flight without a crew, before flying astronauts. The company had been shooting for its first crew launch by the middle of next year.
An additional test flight would almost certainly push the first astronaut flight back.
Boeing’s Jim Chilton, a senior vice president, stopped by the Starliner’s manufacturing plant at Kennedy Space Center to address employees on his way to a somber news conference.
“These are passionate people who are committing a big chunk of their lives to put Americans back in space from our soil, so it’s disappointing for us,” Chilton told reporters.
It’s been nearly nine years since NASA astronauts have launched from the U.S. The last time was July 8, 2011, when Atlantis — now on display at Kennedy Space Center — made the final space shuttle flight.