Boeing Blunder! Starliner timing failure prevents ISS rendezvous
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – “Unplanned but stable.” That’s how Boeing referred to the first flight of its Starliner “space taxi.” In layman’s terms, the spacecraft was placed in the wrong orbit and won’t be going to the International Space Station. This morning’s events place another black mark on an expensive, problem-riddled program that has to have NASA concerned.
Delays, leaks, a parachute problem and accusations Boeing pushed for extra funds to increase safety and shorten Starliner’s development – have all taken place with in a disconcertingly short amount of time.
In terms of this morning’s misstep. Boeing provided the following statement at 8:20 a.m. EST (13:20 UTC):
“After launching successfully at 6:36 a.m. EST Friday on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Boeing Starliner space vehicle experienced an off-nominal insertion.
The spacecraft currently is in a safe and stable configuration. Flight controllers have completed a successful initial burn and are assessing next steps.
Boeing and NASA are working together to review options for the test and mission opportunities available while the Starliner remains in orbit.”
Starliner might be “in orbit” – but it won’t be going to the International Space Station and a posting on Twitter suggest the cause of this morning’s failure can be laid squarely at the feet of the Boeing-produced spacecraft. Jim Bridenstine noted this in a 8:50 a.m. EST tweet when he posted:
Because #Starliner believed it was in an orbital insertion burn (or that the burn was complete), the dead bands were reduced and the spacecraft burned more fuel than anticipated to maintain precise control. This precluded @Space_Station rendezvous.
Besides the problem with Starliner’s timing system, the spacecraft’s development has been marred by several additional ‘off-nominal’ events:
- A July 2018 abort engine test resulted in a toxic hydrazine leak of one of the spacecraft’s abort engines. Hydrazine has acquired a nickname within the industry – the devil’s venom. As the name implies, the volatile chemical isn’t something one wants to be covering a crew-rated vehicle.
- On Nov. 4, during a pad abort test, a Starliner test article experienced a failure of one of its parachutes. While equipped with three parachutes, the spacecraft can get by with just two.
- If technical issues weren’t bad enough, a report issued on Nov. 14 by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General noted that Boeing had tried to receive additional funds from NASA to decrease the amount of time the agency has to rely on Russia to send astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX, the other company competing under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has already completed the task of sending an automated version of the NewSpace firm’s Commercial Crew Program spacecraft to the ISS (in March of 2019) and it achieved it with $1.6 billion less funding (Boeing received an estimated $4.2 billion for Starliner, with SpaceX receiving $2.6 billion for Crew Dragon).
Despite this Boeing defended its request for additional funds after the OIG report was released.
“Each member of the Boeing team has a personal stake in the safety, quality and integrity of what we offer our customers, and since Day One, the Starliner team has approached this program with a commitment to design, develop and launch a vehicle that we and NASA can be proud of.”
NASA and Boeing did their best to put a positive spin on this morning’s events during a 9:30 a.m. EST press conference held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Representatives noted that the team “…worked together well in an off-nominal situation.”
With this morning’s failure. it is doubtful that the public feels Boeing is providing “quality.” With the toxic hydrazine leak and parachute failure, it is doubtful the astronauts tapped to fly on Starliner feel an overriding sense of “safety.” When the agency combines all of these issues, it is doubtful Starliner is something “NASA can be proud of.”
SpaceFlight Insider is a space journal working to break the pattern of bias prevalent among other media outlets. Working off a budget acquired through sponsors and advertisers, SpaceFlight Insider has rapidly become one of the premier space news outlets currently in operation. SFI works almost exclusively with the assistance of volunteers.