Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is being developed in conjunction with NASA for crewed spaceflight operations, safely returned to earth on Sunday after mission control had to abort its resupply mission to the International Space Station. According to reports, the spacecraft’s internal clock was improperly set, and as a result, the ship entered into the wrong orbit, making it all but impossible for it to safely reach the ISS. It seems that the error caused the Starliner to expend more fuel than was needed, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Update: #Starliner had a Mission Elapsed Time (MET) anomaly causing the spacecraft to believe that it was in an orbital insertion burn, when it was not. More information at 9am ET: https://t.co/wwsfqqvLN7
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 20, 2019
“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,” he added in a subsequent tweet. “This precluded @Space_Station rendezvous.”
The Starliner’s mission was to deliver a resupply to the crew currently aboard the International Space Station, including food, clothing and holiday present. This means that this high profile failure has ruined more than Boeing’s Christmas: it’s also ruined the holidays for the six crew members currently serving aboard the ISS, including Flight Engineer Christina Koch from Michigan, Flight Engineer Andrew Morgan from West Virginia, and Flight Engineer Jessica Meir from Maine — however, Meir doesn’t seem to be letting this setback affect her Hannukkah spirit, as she recently shared this image of her socks from 250 miles above the Earth’s surface.
“We started the clock at the wrong time,” Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing, said on Saturday. “As a result of starting the clock at the wrong time, the spacecraft upon reaching space thought she was later in the mission and, being autonomous, started to behave that way.”
The Starliner mission was also meant to ferry a test dummy — dubbed “Rosie the Rocketeer” after Rosie the Riveter of World War II fame — up to the ISS. The dummy was meant to provide valuable data, from within the crew compartment, that NASA and Boeing intended to use as they continue preparations for crewed launches next year.
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) December 22, 2019
Boeing and SpaceX have been competing for dominance in this modern commercial space race, with the Elon Musk-helmed SpaceX taking the early lead with a success on very similar mission in March of this year. However, SpaceX still has one more obstacle to overcome before it can begin ferrying human beings into orbit: It needs to conduct a launch abort test to see how well its Dragon Capsule will fare when being ejected from the rocket mid-flight. This sort of test comes with added importance after a failed launch of a Russian rocket last year — fortunately, both the American and Russian astronauts aboard survived that ordeal.
NASA hopes that Boeing and SpaceX can relieve America’s reliance on Russia’s Roscosmos for trips to and from orbit. The United States has lacked the ability to put its own crews in orbit for nearly nine years, since the last time the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed.