Boeing’s Failed Starliner Mission Returns to Earth Successfully

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The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft atop lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in FloridaNASA

A software issue was detected as soon as the separation from the Atlas V launcher. Boeing quickly diagnosed the orbit problem as a “data-retrieval” software issue in which the craft had collected the wrong mission time as it separated from a United Launch Alliance rocket. Once engineers had corrected the Starliner’s “mission elapsed timer” system, the vehicle had used too much fuel to continue to the space station. The vehicle’s incorrect timing was 11 hours from the actual mission time, a Boeing senior vice president, Jim Chilton, said Sunday. Hence, it was decided to bring the Starliner to Earth early and Boeing Co. successfully landed its new CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Sunday after a two-day flight.

After completing 33 orbits during its flight, the Starliner touched down at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 5:58 a.m. local time, 35 minutes after flight controllers fired an engine burn to de-orbit the craft, marking the first time NASA had landed a capsule built for humans on land.

“Overall, this is a good test,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a post-flight news conference at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. “We’re going to get a lot of important information from this test that we’re going to use to move forward.”

The entry, descent and landing was a critical test of Boeing’s new spacecraft, which is designed to carry as many as seven people to and from the space station. The flight was the first time the craft’s heat shield and two-stage parachute systems were exposed to the 3,000F (1,649C) heat and stress encountered upon re-entry.

Boeing and NASA plan several weeks of reviews on the vehicle and the data collected during the 48-hour flight test, with no decisions before then on whether the agency will require the company to perform a second flight without crews, said Steve Stich, NASA’s deputy manager for the commercial crew program.

Boeing and NASA concluded that maintaining a lower orbit of about 250 kilometres (155 miles) would be safer to guard fuel supply and allow for the landing manoeuvres. Boeing had planned to dock with the ISS for almost a week and return to Earth Dec. 28.

The inability to dock with the space station prevented Boeing from delivering holiday gifts and some foods that were aboard the Starliner for astronauts working at the orbital laboratory. “I would like to express Boeing’s regret to the space station crew for not bringing the Christmas presents,” Chilton said. “Not cool.”

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