Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule fails to enter planned target orbit for Space Station docking

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 what maneuvers come next to get the spacecraft to where it needs to be.

Boeing provided the following official statement this morning regarding current mission status:

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.

A joint news conference will be held at 9 am Eastern on NASA TV.

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

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:

— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 20, 2019

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 an orbit that could potentially provide a chance to salve the mission, depending on how much propellant is left on the spacecraft vs. how much is needed.

More updates to follow.

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