Boeing’s new Starliner capsule went off course after launch and will not dock with the International Space station during its first test flight.
It was supposed to be a crucial dress rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts.
The blastoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Friday local time went flawlessly as the Atlas V rocket lifted off with the Starliner capsule, but half an hour into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule did not get into the right orbit to reach the space station.
Officials said the spacecraft’s timer didn’t work properly and it burned up too much fuel to safely make the trip to the space station.
The capsule is still in space and will be brought back to earth, landing in New Mexico as early as Sunday.
LIFTOFF! 🚀 @BoeingSpace's #Starliner spacecraft launched at 6:36am ET and is on its way to the @Space_Station. This @Commercial_Crew demonstration flight marks a milestone in a new era of U.S. human spaceflight systems. Watch: https://t.co/CVvXzb8pww pic.twitter.com/8V6Rt8FwQl
— NASA (@NASA) December 20, 2019
Thousands of spectators jammed the area to see Starliner’s first flight. The United Launch Alliance rocket blasted off and was visible for at least five minutes, its white contrail a brilliant contrast against the dark sky. The mood quickly turned sombre as news of the setback trickled out.
This was Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew provider that successfully completed a similar demonstration last March.
SpaceX has one last hurdle – a launch abort test – before carrying two NASA astronauts in its Dragon capsule, possibly by spring.
A successful Starliner demo could have seen Boeing launching astronauts by the northern summer. But that might not be possible now.
At a briefing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was too early to know if another test flight would be needed before flying astronauts.
“I’m not ruling it out,” Bridenstine said on whether the next Starliner might carry crew or go empty.Had astronauts been on board, they may have been able to take over, correct the problem, and get the capsule to the space station, he said.
It’s been nearly nine years since NASA astronauts have launched from the US. The last time was July 8, 2011, when Atlantis – now on display at Kennedy Space Center – made the final space shuttle flight.
Since then, NASA astronauts have travelled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency. The Soyuz rides have cost NASA up to $US86 million apiece.
The space agency handed over station deliveries to private businesses, first cargo and then crews, to focus on getting astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars.
Commercial cargo ships took flight in 2012, starting with SpaceX.
Crew capsules were more complicated to design and build, and parachute and other technical problems pushed the first launches from 2017 to next year. Last April, a SpaceX crew capsule exploded during a ground test.
The US needs companies competing like this, Bridenstine said on Thursday, to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people. He stressed the need for more than one company in case of problems that kept one grounded.
The Starliner carried Christmas treats and presents for the six space station residents, hundreds of tree seeds similar to those that flew to the moon on Apollo 14, the original air travel ID card belonging to Boeing’s founder and a mannequin named Rosie in the commander’s seat.
The test dummy – named after the bicep-flexing riveter of World War II – wore a red polka dot hair bandanna just like the original Rosie and Boeing’s custom royal blue spacesuit.