NASA, Boeing Upbeat About Truncated Starliner Test Flight

NASA, Boeing Upbeat About Truncated Starliner Test Flight

Despite a troubled start and early end of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Orbital Flight Test (OFT), NASA and Boeing officials were upbeat at a press conference this morning after a “bull’s eye” landing in New Mexico.  While none were willing to commit to next steps until all the data are in hand and analyzed, the mood suggested that a requirement to repeat this uncrewed test is unlikely and the Crewed Flight Test (CFT) will be next.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the two NASA astronauts who will fly the CFT, in fact, argue that if a crew had been aboard Starliner, the mission might have been a complete success.  Starliner is designed to operate autonomously and no one was on this test flight.

Boeing is developing Starliner as a public-private partnership with NASA.  Boeing owns the spacecraft.  NASA is purchasing services from Boeing to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  The OFT and CFT missions are steps toward certification of the system for operational flights.

Starliner was successfully launched at 6:36 am ET on Friday atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.  The Atlas V separates from Starliner while it is still suborbital.  Starliner then fires its own Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control (OMAC) engines to reach orbit and continue on to the ISS.  For reasons that are still being investigated, the Mission Elapsed Timer (MET) on Starliner that triggers the engine firing was set to the wrong time.  Boeing Senior Vice President for Space and Launch Jim Chilton said at today’s press conference that it was off by 11 hours.

Launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner uncrewed Orbital Flight Test on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, Dec. 20, 2019. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Starliner’s automated systems detected it was not in the right place and fired its engines to correct its location, expending a lot of propellant.  By the time flight controllers on the ground could communicate with the spacecraft, not enough propellant remained to rendezvous and dock with ISS.  Consequently Starliner was put into an orbit that would allow it to land at its primary landing site at White Sands, New Mexico in 48 hours.

The landing at 7:58 am ET today was picture perfect and the NASA and Boeing teams were clearly elated.  The spacecraft is reusable and will next fly on the first Post-Certification Mission (PCM) that will be commanded by NASA astronaut Suni Williams.  She was among the astronauts on hand for today’s landing and inspected the vehicle.  She has named it Calypso after ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau’s famed ship. “I love what the ocean means to this planet,” she said. “We would not be this planet without the ocean. There’s so much to discover in the ocean, and there’s so much to discover in space.”

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft after landing at White Sands Missile Range, NM, Dec. 22, 2019. The white tent is an environmental enclosure about to be placed around the spacecraft so technicians could pump in warm air to prevent propellant lines from freezing in the cold temperatures at the site. Screengrab from NASA TV

Although Starliner did not dock with the ISS, one of the test objectives, Bridenstine, Chilton and NASA Commercial Crew Deputy Program Manager Steve Stitch focused on what was accomplished rather than what was not. They downplayed the importance of docking, insisting that they did extend and retract the docking system during the time Starliner was on orbit to demonstrate that it worked and if they had docked with ISS as planned, they would have powered down the spacecraft during most of its stay in any case.  Stitch went so far as to call the 11-hour time discrepancy, which apparently was caused by a software error that was not detected during extensive integrated testing, a “little issue” at the beginning of the mission, adding that “I’ve seen over my career at NASA that sometimes … we actually learn more … and at the end of the day it helps you move forward more quickly when you have a problem like this…and you understand how you’re going to solve those problems….”

Bridenstine stresses that some objectives are weighted more highly than others and launch and landing are among the most important.  The Atlas V launch was perfect, flying a unique trajectory for crewed flights, and today’s landing, although a week earlier than planned, went off without a hitch.  While in orbit, Boeing was able to test Starliner’s propulsion and life support systems, and establish a communications link with the ISS.

“The hardest parts of this orbital flight test were successful,” Bridenstine said.  “This is why we conduct these tests, to learn and improve our systems.”



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