Early Friday morning, Boeing launched its uncrewed CST-100 Starliner from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but the spacecraft experienced an “off-nominal” orbital insertion that will prevent it from rendezvousing with the International Space Station. It’s a serious blow to Boeing’s aspirations to eventually deliver astronauts to the ISS on behalf of NASA.
All seemed well at first, as the uncrewed CST-100 Starliner departed Cape Canaveral this morning atop an Atlas V rocket, blasting off at 6:36 a.m. ET. Around 30 minutes into the launch, however, it became clear that the spacecraft did not reach its intended orbit, and it won’t be able to rendezvous with the International Space Station as planned due to lack of fuel, according to NASA chief Jim Bridenstine.
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.
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 20, 2019
As Bridenstine explained in a series of tweets, Starliner experienced a “Mission Elapsed Time” anomaly, which made the spacecraft believe “it was in an orbital insertion burn, when it was not.” As a result, Starliner burned more fuel than it was supposed to, which will now prevent it from meeting up with the ISS. That said, Starliner is currently in a “safe and stable configuration,” according to a Boeing press release.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, shared some insight into the incident in a tweet, saying the anomaly wouldn’t have posed a risk to human life.
So, no ISS for you, Starliner. Too much prop used up recovering from the anomaly. Good news: seems like this would have been survivable for the crew, and hopefully they have enough prop left to successfully recover the spacecraft.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) December 20, 2019
This is definitely discouraging news. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, which is seeking to restore America’s ability to independently deliver astronauts to space—something the U.S. hasn’t been able to do since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Had this mission gone well, Boeing and NASA could have proceeded toward the next step, namely a crewed launch early next year. It’s unclear how today’s setback might influence that timeline.