Boeing's Starliner capsule returns early from failed mission

The spacecraft missed the position it needed to get into orbit for the International Space Station

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, atop an ULA Atlas V rocket, launches during an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida in a still image from video December 20, 2019. NASA TV via REUTERS.  THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Boeing's Starliner spacecraft won't achieve its mission objective of docking with the International Space Station, NASA said on Friday, dealing a blow to the agency's plans to end US dependence on Russian rockets for delivering astronauts to space.

Officials said the autonomously flown capsule experienced a glitch involving its onboard clock that led it to burn too much propellant, forcing an early return to Earth on Sunday morning.

"We have made a final decision - Starliner will not dock with the @Space_Station and will return to White Sands on Sunday," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a tweet.

The failure of the mission, a final dress rehearsal before a crewed flight, will be seen as especially stinging for Boeing, which is facing a safety crisis over its grounded 737 MAX planes.

After the Space Shuttle program was shuttered in 2011, NASA awarded Boeing and Elon Musk's SpaceX contracts worth billions of dollars to provide transport for US astronauts.

The launch was a crucial dress rehearsal ahead of an inaugural manned mission planned for next summer.

Everything went flawlessly as the Atlas V rocket soared with the Starliner just before sunrise.

The United Launch Alliance rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and 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.

But 30 minutes into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule didn't get into the position needed to get it to the International Space Station.

"When the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle we did not get the orbital insertion burn that we were hoping for," Mr Bridenstine said.

Mr Bridenstine said the timer error caused the capsule to burn much of its fuel too soon, preventing it from reaching the desired orbit. NASA and Boeing tried to manually correct the automated errors, but mission control commands sent across NASA's satellite communications network were inexplicably delayed.

"The challenge here has to do with automation," Mr Bridenstine said, adding that astronauts on board would have been able to override the system that caused the malfunction.

Mr Bridenstine said he would not rule out the possibility of allowing Boeing to proceed directly to its first crewed Starliner flight, depending on findings from the investigation of Friday's mishap.

Nicole Mann, one of three astronauts slated to fly on Boeing's first crewed flight test, told reporters, "We are looking forward to flying on Starliner. We don't have any safety concerns." ​

NASA astronaut Mike Fincke added, "Had we been on board, we could have given the flight control team more options on what to do in this situation."

The Starliner was supposed to reach the space station and stay for a week.

This was Boeing's chance to catch up with SpaceX, NASA's other commercial crew provider that successfully 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.

In a message of sympathy for his Boeing rival, SpaceX boss Elon Musk said on Twitter, "Orbit is hard," adding, "Best wishes for landing & swift recovery to next mission".

"The US needs competition like this," Mr Bridenstine said on Thursday, "to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people."

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 US.

The last time was July 8, 2011, when Atlantis — now on display at Kennedy Space Centre — made the final space shuttle flight.

Since then, NASA astronauts have travelled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency.

The Soyuz rides have cost NASA up to $86 million (Dh 316 million) apiece.

Built to accommodate seven, the white capsule with black and blue trim will typically carry four or five people.

For the test flight, 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 flight was designed to test all systems, from the vibrations and stresses of liftoff to the December 28 touchdown at the Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Boeing began preliminary work on the Starliner in 2010.