Boeing saved its new Starliner spaceship from disaster. Here’s how the mission unfolded and what it could mean for NASA astronauts. – Business Insider


  • Boeing safely landed its first CST-100 Starliner spaceship, named “Calypso,” in New Mexico on Sunday.
  • No astronauts flew aboard the Starliner. The mission was designed to show the vehicle, which NASA funded through its Commercial Crew Program, is safe to fly astronauts.
  • But the Starliner suffered a major glitch with a clock shortly after launch, causing it to veer off-course.
  • Boeing rescued the mission, which NASA officials said should achieve about 90% of its objectives despite not reaching its planned destination, the International Space Station.
  • However, no one could say whether or not the company’s next mission would be a redo of the uncrewed test flight or the first with astronauts riding inside.
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Boeing and NASA officials seemed proud, and perhaps a little giddy, after the company’s first new orbital-class spaceship, the CST-100 Starliner, landed with barely a scratch in New Mexico on Sunday.

“You look at the landing, it was an absolute bull’s-eye. Better than, I think, anybody anticipated,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said during a press conference that day. “That’s good for the agency, it’s good for Boeing, and it’s good for the United States of America.”

But just two days before, the autonomous spacecraft — which carried no people on its maiden flight — suffered from a critical timing error that, without intervention from mission control, likely would have ended with the loss of the uncrewed Starliner and its cargo of food and Christmas presents bound for the International Space Station.

More importantly, the Orbital Flight Test mission was designed to show NASA the spacecraft is safe to fly astronauts on a follow-up test flight, ostensibly planned for mid-2020.

“It’s disappointing for us,” Jim Chilton, the senior vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch division, said of the error just after launch on Friday.

Here’s what happened during the historic mission and why both Boeing and NASA officials now, after landing “Calypso,” as astronauts have named the space-worthy ship, seem surprisingly upbeat about its performance.

Boeing designed the CST-100 Starliner to fly up to seven passengers. NASA funded the work with a $4.2 billion contract.

A Boeing technician works on the Starliner crew test capsule inside the orbital processing facility at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida December 18, 2019. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

A Boeing technician works on the Starliner crew test capsule inside the orbital processing facility at Kennedy Space Center
Reuters


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The money comes from the Commercial Crew Program, which NASA started 2010. The goal: Have companies, not the US government, build new spaceships to reach the International Space Station.

international space station, iss

The International Space Station.
NASA


Source: Business Insider

NASA desperately needs those commercial spaceships because it retired its fleet of space shuttles in July 2011.

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Space shuttle Atlantis at Launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Dave Mosher


Ever since then, NASA has solely — and uncomfortably — relied on Russia to ferry US astronauts to and from orbit inside that nation’s Soyuz spacecraft. A single round-trip ticket now costs NASA more than $80 million.

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The Soyuz-FG rocket booster with Soyuz MS-11 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP


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Help is on the way, though. Out of a dozen companies, Boeing and SpaceX made it through NASA’s competition with two independent spaceship designs.

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Nine astronauts will fly the first four crewed missions inside SpaceX and Boeing’s new spaceships for NASA, called Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively.

NASA via AP


Before Boeing’s Starliner vehicle can fly astronauts, though, NASA requires a series of test flights and demonstrations.

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The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019.

Cory Huston/NASA


NASA requires Starliner to fly astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of a rocket-launch failure. So Boeing developed new engines …

cst 100 starliner service module engine hot fire test aerojet rocketdyne

A thruster designed to help Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner blast away from a launchpad in an emergency.

Aerojet Rocketdyne


… And tested them on a full escape system in November. The test showed Starliner can automatically blast away from impending disaster.

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp orbital flight test oft abort launch KSC 20191104 PH JSC01_0002_orig

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner’s four launch abort engines and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters ignite during the company’s Pad Abort Test on Nov. 4, 2019.

NASA JSC/Boeing


Though the engines initially leaked, and the parachutes took years to perfect — such a system hadn’t been used since the Apollo program decades ago — Boeing eventually persevered.

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Boeing conducts its first parachute reliability tests of the CST-100 Starliner over Yuma, Arizona.

NASA


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These and many other subsystems culminated in the first-ever orbital launch of a Starliner at 6:36 a.m. ET on December 20.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, lifts off for 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 December 20, 2019. REUTERS/Thom Baur

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, lifts off for an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station
Reuters


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Nobody was inside except a mannequin named Rosie. There was also some food, Christmas presents, and other cargo for astronauts aboard the space station.

This Nov. 1, 2019 photo provided by Boeing shows Rosie the astronaut test dummy positioned in the space capsule at Kennedy Space Center.  The test dummy will be riding to the space station on Boeing’s new Starliner capsule next month, in the first test flight.  (Boeing via AP)

This Nov. 1, 2019 photo provided by Boeing shows Rosie the astronaut test dummy positioned in the space capsule at Kennedy Space Center.
Associated Press


Source: NASA

The spaceship rode toward space atop an Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance. It lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp orbital flight tst oft launch pad cape canaveral florida

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule stands atop an Atlas V rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

NASA


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To viewers of a NASA TV livestream, the flight seemed to be smoothly for more than half an hour.

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing 1

A computer rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship launching aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Boeing


Source: Business Insider

The Starliner separated from the Atlas V after about 15 minutes.

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing 2

A computer rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship launching aboard an Atlas V rocket.

Boeing


Source: Business Insider

But mission control knew something was wrong shortly after that. About 31 minutes into the mission, Starliner was supposed to have automatically fired its engines to set a course for the space station — but it never did.

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing 3

A computer rendering of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship firing its four main engines to reach orbit.

Boeing


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When the rocket disconnected from the Starliner, the ship’s clock was 11 hours too far ahead. This caused the ship’s autonomous navigation system to fire small reaction-control thrusters and adjust its position in space —for a phase of the mission it had not yet reached.

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp illustration rendering launch orbit landing reaction control system rcs thrusters

An animation of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner using its reaction control system thrusters to adjust its position in space.

Boeing


Source: Business Insider

And possibly because Starliner wasn’t in the right position, it had trouble connecting with NASA satellites: Mission Control couldn’t immediately override the autonomous system and tell the ship to fire its main engines for orbit.

nasa tracking data relay satellite tdrs m 13

An illustration of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, TDRS-M, in orbit.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center


Source: Business Insider

As a result, the Starliner burned through about 25% of its fuel before Mission Control finally took remote-control of the ship. There wasn’t enough fuel to reach the space station — only rescue the ship into a stable orbit and prevent it from crashing to Earth.

boeing cst 100 starliner illustration space earth 24329983573_943fef2be5_k

An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship flying around Earth.

Boeing


Source: Business Insider

It was a tense moment for everyone on the mission, though officials said human pilots could have made a big difference. “Had we had an astronaut on board, we very well may be at the International Space Station right now,” Bridenstine said on Sunday.

nasa administrator jim bridenstine beoing cst 100 starliner orbital flight test post launch press briefing kennedy space center florida 2019 12 20T160344Z_91047573_HP1EFCK18M877_RTRMADP_3_SPACE EXPLORATION BOEING.JPG

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discusses the status of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft orbital test flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida December 20, 2019.

Joe Skipper/Reuters


Source: NASA via YouTube

That’s because — according to NASA managers, Boeing officials, and astronauts themselves — a person would have seen the ship had missed a critical engine burn.

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NASA commercial crew astronauts Nicole Mann, Michael Fincke, Suni Williams, Josh Cassada, and Eric Boe pose for a picture in front of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft onboard ahead of the Orbital Flight Test mission launch on December 18, 2019 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Joel Kowsky/NASA


At that point, someone would have used Starliner’s manual controls to bypass the autopilot and take over the flight.

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NASA astronaut and Commercial Crew member Sunita Williams uses a Boeing CST-100 Starliner display trainer.

NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis


So while the Starliner never reached its target destination, Christmas presents and all, and did not dock with the ISS …

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An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner docking to the International Space Station.

Boeing


… Everyone was happy the spaceship was saved.

boeing cst 100 starliner spaceship nasa commercial crew program ccp orbital flight tst oft cape canaveral launch 2019 12 20T000000Z_2040578778_HP1EFCK0Y1E6R_RTRMADP_3_SPACE EXPLORATION BOEING.JPG

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, atop an ULA Atlas V rocket, lifts off on an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on December 20, 2019.

Joe Skipper/Reuters