First Flight of the Boeing Starliner Cut Short – What Went Wrong

The launch of Friday and the landing on Sunday of the first Boeing Starliner spacecraft were picture perfect. However, the orbital flight that took place in between left much to be desired. Ars Technica explains the software glitch that preventing the Starliner from rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station.

“After being released by the rocket, Starliner was supposed to use its Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control engines to provide the thrust needed to reach a stable orbit and begin the process of catching up to the International Space Station. But that did not happen.

“During a post-launch news conference, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained that the mission elapsed timing system had an error in it, with the net effect that the spacecraft thought it was performing an orbital insertion burn, when in fact it was not. The on-board computer then expended a significant amount of propellant to maintain a precise attitude, thinking it had reached orbit.”

By the time the flight controllers on the ground found out that the glitch had occurred, it was too late to make corrections.

“When ground-based controllers realized the problem, they immediately sent a command to begin the orbital insertion burn, but due to a communications problem—which could have been a gap in coverage of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System or some spacecraft error—those commands were not received right away by Starliner. So, it continued to expend fuel to maintain a precise attitude.

“By the time the commands got through, Starliner had expended too much fuel to make a safe rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station, the primary goal of this test flight.”

NASA and Boeing jointly made the decision not to try to go for the ISS, but to make as many tests of the spacecraft as possible before bringing it down at the White Sands Missile Range 48 hours after the spacecraft was launched. In the meantime, officials from both NASA and Boeing chose to be upbeat about the fact that the Starliner performed nominally during the two days that it was in Earth orbit. The space agency and the big aerospace company garnered an enormous amount of data about the spacecraft during its truncated flight that will be of great benefit during subsequent flights. The data included some from sensors attached to a mannikin strapped in one of the crew seats dubbed “Rosie the Rocketeer.” The data from “Rosie” will inform engineers how the flight would have affected a human astronaut.

The Starliner executed a deorbit burn while it was still over the Pacific Ocean. The spacecraft detached the service module and then hit the atmosphere as so many space capsules have before, enduring an immense amount of heat as the air hit its heat shield. The Starliner passed through this phase intact. It deployed its drogue parachutes to stabilize it in the landing position. Then the spacecraft deployed its main chutes to slow it down enough so that it soft-landed on an airbag on the New Mexico desert.

While the flight of the Starliner achieved a great many test objectives, the fact remains that the spacecraft did not rendezvous, approach, and dock with the ISS. The primary purpose of the Starliner is to take astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory.

However, both NASA and Boeing officials were quick to point out that had the Starliner contained a crew on board, it would have been able to detect the timer glitch and take manual control of the spacecraft. Pending the analysis of the data that has been garnered, they have to determine whether another uncrewed test flight will be needed or whether Boeing can go directly to a crewed test flight. If the former, the timeline for getting the Starliner operational will have at least a three-month delay.

The next event for the commercial crew program will be a flight abort test for the other spacecraft in the program, the SpaceX Dragon. Should that test prove to be successful, the Dragon will be cleared for a crewed flight test sometime in the spring. Whatever happens, NASA hopes that both the Dragon and the Starliner will become operational in 2020, ending America’s dependence on Russia for taking astronauts to and from space.

Comments (13)

  1. Obama was not illegal; just illegitimate. Both his mother and father were born in Kansas. He just lied about who his father was.

  2. you are not to smart are you

  3. this is true the illegal defiantly harmed our great nation

  4. You can thank Obama for that. The Russians are charging us $10 million dollars to fly our people to the Space Station and back. We put the Station and assembled it and shared it with other Nations. Obama did nothing but set our Race to Space back 10 years or more. He would not have had that chance if our government would have investigated his fake Birth Certificate.

  5. God bless America and the opportunity to compete. Boeing has been dependable for many years and they were part of my
    growth years while completing my educational process and technical development . I worked a large Computer lab in Huntsville
    Al for several years while the Marshal Space Flight Center was active in space flights and worked with the Boeing Computer Labs
    to process flight control test and was always impressed as to how much knowledge was possessed by all successful in the flight tests. God has richly Blessed America and the development of the Space flight here in Alabama. Thanks for all the opportunity
    to grow with a Great Company in such an important part of the growth of our great and prosperous country USA.

  6. No during the cold war things were kept secret for a reason

  7. Every Astronaut knew what they were signing up for if Orville was Wilbur hadn’t said we don’t trust this motorized airplane we’d all still be dependent on Ford, with great advancements come great risks, If the program had not been cut in the 70’s we would be on the moon with a base now, what should have occurred in my lifetime will have to wait for the next generation, T0 my chagrin I will continue to look up at the stars and wonder why I’ve always felt that I should be up there not down here!

  8. That’s your opinion & you know what is said about opinions: they are like butt holes, everyone has one and they all stink!

  9. But is that ‘fortune’ more or less than the fortune that it’d cost to develop a spacecraft that could do it AND the delay in putting an Amerian in the ISS? Sometimes it is more advantageous to pay another than to make your own. For instance, is it better to buy a car that is manufactured by a company that successfully made millions or to spend the necessary R&D funds to develop your own car? It depends upon the amount of capital you have AND whether you’d like to try to compete with successful car manufacturers?

  10. NASA and all the other “space” agencies lie.

  11. the fact that we have no spacecraft means we are paying Russia a fortune to haul our astronauts back and forth to the space station

  12. Yeah, I guess there are some who would rather live in caves and cook over an open fire pit — I’m personally happy that the ‘native’ curiosity of man has driven him to investigate and harness the heat energy of fire! I could care less about the ‘eventual’ trip to Mars (getting there) — the VALUE is in the effort and understanding required to achieve these (and other) goals. When man’s curiosity is dead — he will soon follow :^(

  13. Putting man in space “to go where no man has gone before” because it is stupid has killed 60 people since the onset of this insanity. Now these goofball Ph.D.s want to send a man to Mars. Who will that be? Someone who has been sentenced to death as that is what will happen.

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