Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has faced a rough start. A software issue during launch meant it didn’t supply the International Space Station as planned. It isn’t yet clear what this will mean for US plans for crewed space flight.
The issue started before launch when Starliner’s software latched onto the wrong clock to set its time. Nobody noticed this and its clock was 11 hours off what was intended as a result. About 31 minutes after Starliner launched, it fired its thrusters too early, using up fuel it needed to reach the ISS. So the Boeing team had to bring the craft back down for a landing in New Mexico on 22 December, which went smoothly.
During the landing, the spacecraft endured temperatures upwards of 1600°C. This was a crucial part of the test flight, which was planned to be the last before a crewed test in 2020. It’s not yet clear whether the crewed test will proceed as planned or if another uncrewed test flight will be added to the schedule.
“Boeing, until we look at all that data, is not in a position to propose going to do a crewed flight test,” said Boeing’s Jim Chilton in a press conference. Reviewing data from Starliner’s flight could take months.
NASA has contracted Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build capsules to carry astronauts to the ISS, but both have faced significant delays in the past few years.
Any further delays in crewed flights could pose problems for NASA, which currently has to purchase expensive seats aboard Russian Soyuz craft to get astronauts to the ISS.
“Further delays in the Commercial Crew Program unfortunately means NASA will continue to be reliant on its Russian partner to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS,” says space consultant Laura Forczyk.
Flying humans to space from US soil is a feat that hasn’t been achieved since the Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011. It now looks like the US may have to wait even longer.
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