CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – After a perfect launch aboard an ULA Atlas V rocket, the CST-100 Starliner, operated by Boeing, has failed to achieve the orbit necessary to complete its first Orbital Flight Test. The test would have had Starliner autonomously docking with the ISS and delivering supplies to the space station.
During the launch, spaceflight fans noted the distinct lack of visual coverage of the launch, with NASA TV coverage consisting of views of the three control rooms and the commentators for the majority of the flight. The spaceflight-watching audience has become accustomed to SpaceX video feeds of launch and graphics when videos are not available. This coverage was very anticlimactic for the typical spaceflight viewer.
Moreover, and with a personal note, after the failure to gain the desired orbit, the coverage quickly degraded into repeating the same phrases. “Off-nominal orbital insertion” was stated more times than it has ever been spoken out loud in the past. Finally, NASA TV discontinued the live coverage before any real answers were given. Radio silence.
NASA is better than that. The typical spaceflight-viewer is a hardened space-nerd. We understand that things can and will go wrong. We will not lose our faith in your programs by being given the truth. We understand that space is a difficult place to get things done. We know you are working the problems and that the best solution might be to bring the capsule back early. Failures happen and we move on.
If anything, this episode shows that space fans will pick up on the slightest data. One devoted space fan, Scot Manley (@DJSnM), quickly after the failure pointed out that the capsule was in 90 degrees to prograde during the orbital insertion.
After the off-nominal insertion, Boeing conducted a correction burn, but no word has come as to what the outcome is, if any. A scheduled 9 a.m. press conference has also been cancelled, with word the two press conferences will happen “at some point.” We, the spaceflight-viewing community await any word on the fate of Starliner.
In the meantime, here are some pictures of the beautiful launch.
UPDATE 9:00 a.m. – Jim Bridenstine has kept the public updated while NASA continues its silence. The orbital insertion failed due to a clock error.
UPDATE 9:52 a.m.- Jim Bridenstine states that if astronauts on board, they would not only be safe, but would be on their way to the ISS. The failure was cause by several factors, primarily the Elapsed Mission Timer was programmed incorrectly, causing the craft to believe that it had already accomplished the orbital insertion. By the time mission controllers realized the issue, there was a delay in communications linkup due to being in between two comms satellites. The craft is in a safe configuration and Boeing is aiming toward a Sunday landing at White Sands.