Boeing’s spacecraft Starliner did not achieve the proper orbit it needed to reach the International Space Station, shortly after the capsule launched from Florida early Friday morning.
No people are on board the capsule, as the flight was planned to be one of the final key tests before Starliner flies NASA astronauts. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine identified at least part of the cause of the issue, saying there was an anomaly.
“Starliner believed it was in an orbital insertion burn… the spacecraft burned more fuel than anticipated to maintain precise control,” Bridenstine said.
“This precluded” a rendezvous with the space station, Bridenstine added, meaning it will not be able to reach the space station.
NASA and Boeing are still looking to salvage some of the test mission if possible, as Bridenstine said “we are getting good burns and are elevating the orbit of the spacecraft.”
NASA ended the webcast of the mission earlier than expected as Boeing attempted to find a solution.
Boeing said in a statement that its engineers “are assessing next steps.”
“The Boeing Starliner space vehicle experienced an off nominal insertion. The spacecraft currently is in 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 Boeing spokesperson said.
The spacecraft launched at 6:36 a.m. ET on top of an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Issues with Starliner come as Boeing grapples with the fallout from two fatal crashes of its 737 Max commercial jetliner, arguably the largest scandal in the company’s history. The two crashes — which killed 346 people — have embroiled Boeing in a government-wide review of its engineering practices as well as how the Federal Aviation Administration reviews aircraft.Boeing said earlier this month that it will suspend production of its best-selling aircraft at least through January as the FAA’s investigation into the 737 Max continues.
This represents a blow for NASA as well, likely further delaying the agency’s return to being able to fly its astronauts to the space station. Delays have plagued the Commercial Crew program, as NASA intended the first launches to happen as early as 2017.
Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, astronauts have flown aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
In 2014, NASA awarded development contracts for the Commercial Crew program to SpaceX for up to $2.6 billion and Boeing for up to $4.2 billion. Future Commercial Crew contracts would be up for grabs, as NASA would look to buy seats on Boeing’s Starliner capsule and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.