Three questions about the failure of Boeing’s “Starliner” test flight

For Boeing, which announced a suspension of production of the 737MAX series due to design flaws, the starliner’s unmanned first flight was expected to boost morale and the company’s stock price, but the 20th launch mission failed, the spacecraft was forced to abandon the planned trip to the International Space Station to try to return early, to the embattled Boeing water it also became a setback for NASA’s commercial manned space program.

Because of why the test flight lost

At 6:36 am ET (20:36 BST), the Starliner took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard the United Launch Alliance’s Cosmos 5 carrier rocket. About 15 minutes after launch, the spacecraft separated normally from the rocket. About an hour after the launch, NASA issued a statement saying the spacecraft had not entered its intended orbit. The spacecraft then canceled its planned trip to the space station and is expected to return to Earth on the 22nd.

Although the exact cause is uncertain, preliminary analysis suggests that the problem may have been with the ship’s onboard timer. Jim Bridenstine, the head of NASA, said on social media that the “Starliner” had an “mission-time” anomaly and that the spacecraft had mistakenly assumed that it had conducted an in-orbit ignition that had not actually occurred, and that it was unable to continue to the space station.

At a press conference on the 20th, Bridenstine described the problem as an “automation system” error. If the capsule had been manually intervened by astronauts, the spacecraft would be expected to return to normal orbit.

The problem sounds familiar, with the Boeing 737 MAX series being the “mobility enhancement system” that automatically prevents stalls, but Jim Chilton, Boeing’s aerospace launch executive, said at a news conference Tuesday that the timer error “doesn’t appear to be a systemic software problem.”

While problems with space exploration are normal, as Bridenstine puts it, “that’s what the test is all about,” it’s clear that the technical stability of the established Boeing company is not entirely reliable. Chilton said ground flight controllers tried to use the tracking and data relay satellite system to send backup commands to the spacecraft after the anomaly, but the spacecraft was in the middle of two satellites and was unable to contact them successfully. This indicates that ground controllers are unable to achieve “seamless control” of the spacecraft and that the remedy is limited.

Can I return home safely?

The spacecraft, which had planned to dock with the space station on the 21st and return to Earth after docking for a week, can now only “go home” ahead of schedule, but NASA and Boeing are more willing to stress that the mission has been “partially successful.”

Boeing said in a statement on the 21st, the mission has carried out two orbit combustion and multiple propulsion system detection combustion, testing the navigation system, life support system and communications, instruction and tracking systems, and carried out a high-control demonstration. The biggest focus at present is whether the spacecraft can return successfully.

In addition to the rendezvous mission, starliners are scheduled to deliver about 270 kilograms of supplies and equipment to the space station and bring back some research samples and doll astronaut Snoopy. Now it seems that Snoopy can only spend the New Year in space.

In addition, it is debatable whether a similar task will need to be carried out once. Bridenstine hinted that no manned test flight spree or the next direct manned test flight. But the lack of a technical verification of docking with the space station will undoubtedly increase the risk of manned flight.

How the plan will move forward

After the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle in 2011, the U.S. transported astronauts to and from the space station to all “rely on” Russian spacecraft. As of July 2019, NASA had purchased 70 Russian Soyuz seats at a cost of $3.9 billion. To change this awkward situation, the United States is vigorously developing commercial manned spaceflight. In 2014, Space Exploration Technologies and Boeing won a $6.8 billion contract from NASA to build manned versions of the Dragon and Starliner manned spacecraft, respectively.

Development by both companies has been delayed several times, allowing NASA to purchase more than 10 more Russian “ship tickets” in the past two years. The current manned version of the Dragon spacecraft was first completed in March this year, and the lagging Boeing originally planned to synchronize with space exploration technology companies, in 2020 to carry out manned flights to the space station.

The development process for the “Starliner” has been in a twist and turn. One of the three parachutes failed to open on time during a launch pad escape test on November 4, though NASA said it did not affect the astronauts’ ability to escape from the spacecraft and land safely.

NASA’s practice of “outsourcing” space missions to commercial companies is designed to save development money, but the two contractors receive disparagement, with Boeing taking the lead. In November, a NASA audit showed that Boeing received extra funding from NASA, far more than its contract agreement; the Starliner cost $90 million for a single seat, more than the $81 million asking price of the Russian Soyuz, compared with $55 million for the manned Dragon.

Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies, said on Twitter that it was unfair that Boeing had paid more for the same thing.

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