Boeing’s first flight of its new manned spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, failed today because the vehicle failed to reach its correct orbit after liftoff. It was an unmanned flight of a manned spacecraft, so no one boarded the test flight. The failure raises questions about Starliner’s future, and it is unclear how long it will take the team to recover from the difficulties.
Boeing and NASA, which is assisting in overseeing the mission, have not released further details, and Boeing says Starliner is still “safe and stable” although it is not in orbit, and it is unclear whether the spacecraft will remain in that state for the foreseeable future. “Currently, the spacecraft is in a stable state and the flight controller is troubleshooting,” NASA wrote in an update on its website. NASA did not say whether the capsule would still be able to reach the International Space Station, its original intended destination.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner aircraft is an important part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which aims to develop private U.S. vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Today’s launch is a key flight for Starliner, which Boeing wanted to demonstrate its ability to travel in space and dock with the base. If all goes well, the mission could have paved the way for NASA astronauts to fly Starliner sometime next year. Now, the timetable seems to be a long way off.
About 30 minutes after Starliner’s launch, the trouble began. The capsule took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 6:36 a.m. EST and lifted off from the Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance. The rocket’s flight phase appeared to be working well, and Atlas V succeeded in sending Starliner to the release point, but Starliner’s voyage after separation from the vehicle did not have the desired effect.
In most space flights, rockets carry their payloads all the way to Earth orbit, but that is not the case. Atlas V deploys Starliner to a suborbital path around Earth that does not allow spacecraft to orbit the Earth indefinitely. Starliner will eventually fall into the sea unless it ignites its own engine to put it on its way. The design was a conscious decision by the Starliner team to move the capsule closer to Earth as a safety measure in case of a future emergency with passengers on board, which would make it easier for crews to abort their journeys and make it easier and more comfortable to return home.
Of course, getting Starliner into orbit means that the capsule has to light its own engine to climb into space. Initially, NASA and Boeing said the ignition had been delayed and there was some time in the doubt about whether it was fully ignited. Now, it does seem that some kind of ignition failure has occurred, but whatever happens, Starliner is not flying to where it should be.
Boeing said Starliner was on some track and the team was trying to fix the problem. NASA is expected to provide more details at a 9 a.m. local time news conference.