Boeing capsule goes off course, won’t dock at space station
Cape Canaveral, Fla. – Boeing’s new Starliner capsule went off course after launch Friday and won’t 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, went flawlessly as the Atlas V rocket lifted off with the Starliner capsule. But a half-hour into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule didn’t get into the right orbit to reach the space station. The capsule is still in space and will be brought back to Earth, landing in New Mexico as early as Sunday.
Boeing is one of two companies hired by NASA to launch astronauts from the U.S. The space agency has been relying on Russian rockets to travel to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttle almost nine years ago.
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.
As the astronauts watched from nearby control centers, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the capsule blasted off just before sunrise from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket was visible for at least five minutes, its white contrail a brilliant contrast against the dark sky. Thousands of spectators jammed the area, eager to witness Starliner’s premiere flight.
It was a one-day trip to the orbiting lab, putting the spacecraft on track for a docking Saturday morning.
This was Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew provider that 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.
The U.S. needs competition like this, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday, to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people.
“We’re moving into a new era,” he said.
The space agency handed over station deliveries to private businesses, first cargo and then crews, in order 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 now next year.
It’s been nearly nine years since NASA astronauts have launched from the U.S. 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 traveled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency. The Soyuz rides have cost NASA up to $86 million apiece.