Boeing's Starliner crew spacecraft won't dock with Space Station as planned after missing target orbit

Darrell Etherington

Boeing's Starliner CST-100 crew spacecraft got off to a great start on its first-ever launch to the International Space Station this morning -- but despite the rocket and launch vehicle performing as expected, the Starliner spacecraft itself hit a bit of a snag when it came time for its own post-launch mission to begin.

The Starliner capsule successfully separated from the ULA Centaur second-stage rocket that brought it to its sub-orbital target in space, but when the Starliner was supposed to light up its own engines and propel itself to its target orbit, the requisite burn didn't happen. Boeing instead said that the spacecraft achieved a stable position to charge up its solar-powered batteries, and that it was working on the ground with its team to figure out which maneuvers come next to get the spacecraft where it needs to be.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine provided via Twitter at 8:45 AM EST the first substantial update about what went wrong, noting that there was an incident wherein the Starliner spacecraft "believed it was in an orbital insertion burn, when it was not."

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This means its mission clock encountered some kind of bug or error that told the Starliner systems it was at a different point in the mission procedure than it actually should've been. As a result, the spacecraft burned more fuel than it was supposed to and missed its intended orbital insertion point. The Starliner has subsequently done a second burn and is in a stable orbit, but it is no longer capable of reaching the International Space Station as planned.

At a press conference that kicked off around 9:38 AM EST, the NASA administrator kicked off remarks by noting that "a lot of things went right" in today's mission, regardless of the problems encountered.

"When the space craft separated from the launch vehicle, we did not get the desired orbital insertion burn that we were hoping for," he continued, noting again that the spacecraft believed it was at a different stage in the mission than it actually was. Once ground control was able to send a manual command to correct it, it was "too late" to salvage the full mission of actually reaching the Space Station as planned because too much propellant was already burned.

Bridenstine also speculated that were NASA astronauts actually on board, they would "absolutely" have "been safe," and that they probably could've assisted and overcome the automation error encountered via manual control to save the mission.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno explained that this was a fully successful launch from the perspective of the Atlas V launch vehicle, which flew in a different configuration than usual for the first time, so they consider it a win for their perfect launch record, having "literally hit a bullseye" for their target mission parameters.

"It appears that the vehicle was using a mission elapsed timer that was not the mission elapsed timer that the mission was on," explained Boeing Senior Vice President of Space and Launch Jim Chilton. "We don't know why that happened."

The Starliner is currently in an orbit that will allow it to turn back to Earth in 48 hours, which Bridentstine and Chilton said in itself will be an important test of the landing system. Once on the ground, teams will be better able to figure out what happened on board the spacecraft with the Mission Elapsed Timer (MET) error.

As for what this means for the overall Boeing Commercial Crew mission, and whether this will impact the timing and sequence of the crewed flight test that was supposed to take place next, all parties say it's too early to tell and they'll need to do more investigation into what happened before determining whether there's a need for another full orbital flight test before putting crew on a first test launch.