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Starliner launch fails, spacecraft to return to Earth

After being successfully placed in a preliminary orbit by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning, Boeing’s Starliner capsule failed to reach its required orbit for docking with ISS when its own rocket engines did not fire properly at the right time.

The orbit it is in is stable, and the spacecraft is undamaged. Engineers now plan to bring it back to Earth on Sunday, landing at White Sands, New Mexico.

It appears some software issue had the capsule fire its own rockets either at the wrong time or for too short a time. The spacecraft was then in the wrong orbit, and needed to use too much fuel to correct this issue, making it impossible to dock with ISS.

More information here:

However, for reasons Boeing engineers do not yet understand, Starliner’s Mission Event Timer clock malfunctioned, causing the vehicle to think it was at a different point in the mission and at a different time in its mission that it actually was.

…This resulted in Starliner’s Reaction Control System thinking the Orbit Insertion Burn was underway and executing a series of burns to keep the vehicle oriented in the insertion burn attitude; however, the Orbit Insertion Burn was not actually occurring.

When mission controllers realized the issue, they sent manual commands to Starliner to perform an Orbit Insertion Burn in a backup window that came roughly eight minutes after the planned maneuver. However, a known and brief gap in NASA satellite communications caused a further delay.

By the time Starliner was finally able to burn its engines and get into a stable orbit, it had burned 25% more propellant than anticipated.

Boeing is certainly not having a good year. First it has had to shut down production on its new 737-Max airplane due to several crashes caused by software issues. Next its SLS rocket for NASA has had endless cost overruns and delays. Now Starliner fails during its first launch.

For ULA, however, the Atlas 5 rocket performed exactly as planned, so this launch gets listed as a success. They have now completed 5 launches this year.

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  • Scott M.

    If I understand correctly, this is the current thinking on what happened:

    Starliner has three separate thruster/engine systems: the abort motors, the reaction control system, and the orbital injection motors. The latter motor system is needed b/c the Atlas V doesn’t have enough oomph to put the spacecraft into an ISS interception orbit.

    When the spacecraft separated from the Atlas, for some reason the onboard software was on a different elapsed time than the actual elapsed time. Therefore it didn’t realize that the orbital injection burn was next and instead went and started using the reaction control system to precisely point the spacecraft. Since the RCS uses the same fuel as the OI motors, they wound up wasting a lot of fuel before they could shut it down.

    Ironically, they said that if astronauts had been on board they could have taken over and prevented the problem.

  • Kyle

    I know rocket science is complicated stuff, but come on Boeing what the heck is up? They need to get their act together.

  • Michael G. Gallagher

    Actually, I ‘m quite pleased by Boeing’s failure. They’ve held the US space program hostage-with the help of Richard Shelby-for at least a decade with already obsolete and ridiculously expensive SLS. The money that’s gone into the SLS black hole could have put the USA back on the Moon and then some. Or the money could have been used to fund a whole raft of technology and research goals, including nuclear rockets, a centrifuge for the ISS, advanced life support systems, in situ resource utilization, and on orbit refueling. Since this wasn’t a manned flight no lives were lost, so I’m very happy to cheer Boeing on to its next big failure-having to order the SLS to self-destruct far out over the Atlantic on it’s first and only test flight. That’s if that flying pork barrel can make it to the launch pad for a first flight.

    Harsh, I know, but the SLS program is essentially moral treason against the United States of America.

  • Captain Emeritus

    Was the clock still set for daylight saving time?

  • Scott M.

    Captain E., my first thought was “Huh, Mission Control in Houston is one hour behind Florida. Wonder if that had something to do with it?”

  • Diane Wilson

    Clearly a failure to convert Imperial time to metric time.

    Seriously, this is a perfect example of why integration testing and acceptance testing is crucial. It doesn’t matter if all the components work perfectly when tested separately. Everything has to work together, and the odds of that happening on your first try are usually very bad odds. SpaceX understands this.

  • Observer

    ” Kyle
    December 20, 2019 at 10:07 am

    I know rocket science is complicated stuff, but come on Boeing what the heck is up? They need to get their act together.”

    In all honesty, what is up is probably the same thing that was up with the 737 software. Outsource code for $9/hr and this happens. A lot.

  • Douglas Pratt

    I would like to point out that if the ship had been manned, this could have been fixed. I hear so much about how robots can do the job, and life support systems are so expensive…

  • Andrew_W

    Watched the launch, the SRM’s were carried for over 40 seconds after burnout, apparently so they could be dropped into the correct drop zone, I’m betting dropping them immediately after their burnout would have gone a long way to achieving an intercept orbit with the ISS.

  • David

    Scott M: “The latter motor system is needed b/c the Atlas V doesn’t have enough oomph to put the spacecraft into an ISS interception orbit.”

    Not correct, Atlas V has that capability, and in fact the initial trajectory of the Starliner is just a few m/sec short of orbit. But they deliberately aim short for two reasons: a straight to orbit path using the Atlas results in parts of the launch having no survivable abort. Also, using the SM to do the orbital insertion lets them use up the launch abort fuel that otherwise would have to be dumped.

    Andrew_W: “Watched the launch, the SRM’s were carried for over 40 seconds after burnout, apparently so they could be dropped into the correct drop zone, I’m betting dropping them immediately after their burnout would have gone a long way to achieving an intercept orbit with the ISS.”

    They’ve done that for ages, going back to early Atlas and Delta launches. It’s just a built-in cost to the efficiency of those launchers. But it’s irrelevant in this case, as just mentioned, the Atlas has more than enough dV to put the Starliner in orbit, but they purposely aim for a barely suborbital delivery.

  • Andrew_W

    Thanks David, I should have looked at the Atlas V capability and the Starliner mass before using that assumption.

  • Scott M.

    David, thanks for the clarification. Does the Falcon 9 follow the same strategy? I don’t remember a ‘becoming orbital’ burn during the Crew Demo webcast.

  • Patrick Underwood

    SpaceX doesn’t do that. The second stage places the Dragon in orbit, and then has to deorbit itself. The spacecraft does maneuver with its own propulsion, but doesn’t use it to achieve that initial safe orbit.

  • Wodun

    This is disgraceful. After such a long development time, mistakes like this should have been caught long ago. We have waited long enough.

  • Jollster

    They probably mixed up the AM and PM

  • Scott M.

    So explain to the space dummy (that would be me) why SpaceX puts Dragon 2 into orbit w/ the second stage while Boeing doesn’t? I know that SpaceX does a drone-ship catch w/ D2 to allow for a more shallow trajectory so as to avoid high g-loading in case of abort.

  • Tom

    Check out this utterance from a NASA commercial crew manager.
    “..But Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said Friday a successful docking on the unpiloted test flight is not a prerequisite for proceeding with a crewed mission. ”

    Now, why do I feel that if this issue had happened during the SpaceX manned Dragon capsule demo flight, he would not have said what he said OR he would have called for another test.

    Is it me?

  • Tom: Can you provide a link to that quote?

  • Tom

    Boeing is rapidly devolving into Boing! They better start racking up some successes else they’ll soon be moved over to the WSJ penny-stock listings.

  • Tom: Based on the entire article, I think that Stich’s comments are not unreasonable. The mission did achieve many of the goals intended, and I above all do not wish our American space effort to be bogged down with too much caution.

    At the same time, your suspicions that NASA is playing favorites here (Boeing over SpaceX) is also perfectly reasonable. NASA has been doing this since day one, and calling them on the carpet for this suspicion is justified.

  • Pat McCourt

    What, if anything, might the move to Chicago have to do with this? Just asking.

  • Pat McCourt: I have always considered the decision to move Boeing’s corporation headquarters away from the company’s operations in Seattle to be one of dumbest by any corporation. It separated them from where the real work was going on, and I suspect we can attribute many of Boeing’s problems to this, if not directly than indirectly..

  • Scott M.

    I’m still trying to figure out why the Atlas-V didn’t fly the same trajectory as the Falcon 9. I found one reference which implied that the Centaur upper stage is the weak link. That is, they can’t push it too much or strap on an extra SRB because it puts too much stress on the Centaur due to the relatively heavy weight of Starliner.

  • John

    It seems Boeing always received more than SpaceX for commercial crew. So far, we’ve gotten next to nothing. Yes rocket science is hard, but why wasn’t this discovered and fixed around the time Dragon first flew.

    Good Fast Cheap: Choose none.

    Here’s a typically melodramatic mainstream media article on Boeing’s management move. But it captures the isolation was intentional, and that they went from an engineering company to a poorly managed bean counting company.

  • Mike Borgelt

    I’d locate Boeing HQ in a floor built on top of an airliner assembly line which forced the execs to walk through the assembly line to get to work. Might remind them what the company actually does.

  • Edward

    Boeing may have thought that because the company had facilities all across the country, a move to Chicago was not really taking the management any farther away from the work than it already was for many of its sites. This may seem reasonable, but it also took them far away from where a primary product was made.

    My brothers, father, and I were in a discussion on Wednesday about Boeing, and we concluded that the move to Chicago was not only getting away from the places where the work was done, but that they probably hired a bunch of people who had little knowledge of what the work was. As John noted: bean counters.

    The use of bean counters might explain why management assumed that $9 per hour software code was just as good as the more expensive kind. Unlike beans, software is not fungible. Like beans, quality can vary by source.

  • F-16 Bill

    My 2 cents. As a pilot who has flown Boeing aircraft for 26 years, including the B-737’s, while Boeing made some software errors designing and instructing in the changes inherent in the 737 Max, both crashes were pilot error and could have been prevented by using the same techniques that all 737 pilots have used to stop the runaway trim: engage Stab Trim Cutout switches and do not turn them back on.
    The list of errors made by the marginally trained pilots of those crashes is lengthy.

  • 1201AlarmSameType

    According to the Post Landing News Conference the clock was off by 11 hours.

    AM/PM swap PLUS Houston/Florida switch?

  • pzatchok

    Soace X Falcon 9 Does not lift the cargo into a higher orbit not because they can not but because they are going to be recovered. the higher the launch the faster the flight the more fuel you need to slow it down to keep from burning up on re-entry.
    So they use a second stage that can burn up on re-entry.

  • Brian

    My understanding is and this may or may not have a bearing on this software clock issue but my understanding is that almost all of the software coding for the Starliner was done by employees at a Boeing facility based in Australia. Now that is about as far as you can get from where the assembly work is being done as possible.

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