Starliner Reaches Orbit, Can’t Dock with Station

Atlas V lifts off with Starliner spacecraft on Orbital Flight Test 1. (Credit: NASA webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft suffered an anomaly after reaching space during its maiden flight test on Friday morning, resulting in the abandonment of plans for a rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).

Boeing and NASA officials said the spacecraft is in a good orbit and performing well. They are planning an abbreviated two-day flight test before bringing the spacecraft down for a landing on Sunday morning at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said a mission elapsed timing error caused the uncrewed Starliner to believe it was performing an orbital insertion burn when it was not. As a result, the spacecraft burned up a lot of fuel as its reaction control system began firing.

Bridenstine said controllers on the ground were not able to immediately override the automatic controls and command Starliner to perform the burn because the spacecraft was out of contract with the ground as it flew between two TDRS communications satellites.

Controllers were able to get the Starliner to perform the insertion burn late to reach a stable orbit, which was subsequently raised. Because it was not clear whether a full burn would enable Starliner to reach the space station, controllers decided to put it into an orbit that would allow for a safe landing at White Sands.

Astronaut Nicole Mann, who is part of the first three-person crew that will fly on Starliner, said if they had been aboard they could have overridden the automatic controls and commanded the orbital insertion burn.

Officials stressed that if astronauts had been aboard, they would not have been in any danger.

The orbital insertion burn was necessary because the Atlas V booster delivered Starliner into a suborbital trajectory. This was planned, not an anomaly.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) CEO Tory Bruno said the Atlas V booster performed perfectly.. He said an on board camera showed that Starliner cleanly separated from the Centaur upper stage.

The rocket used a Centaur upper stage with two RL-10 engines instead of the one that is used for satellite launches.

The launch was the first of two planned flight tests for Starliner, which Boeing is developing to carry crews to and from the space station. If the flight had gone as planned, a three-member crew would have flown a second mission sometime in the first half of 2020.

Bridenstine was non-committal on whether NASA would require Boeing to conduct another uncrewed flight test before putting astronauts aboard the spacecraft. The answer would depend upon the results of the anomaly investigation.

SpaceX is building its Crew Dragon spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The company flew an uncrewed flight to ISS earlier this year.

SpaceX is planning an in-flight abort test of Crew Dragon using a modified Falcon 9 booster no earlier than Jan. 11. That flight will be followed by a crewed mission to the space station.

Due to delays in both Starliner and Crew Dragon, NASA is in the process of acquiring additional seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to maintain an American presence on ISS.