CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – On a Dec. 21 teleconference, NASA and Boeing detailed plans to return the CST-100 Starliner mission early following a failure to enter the proper orbit for a planned ISS docking. The failure happened after separation from the Centaur upper stage of the ULA ATLAS V rocket used to heft the spacecraft.
The failure of the Starliner to reach orbit was a setback, but Boeing and NASA used the opportunity presented to continue to work through mission objectives despite being unable to dock with the ISS. The failure in this case was that Starliner’s autonomous system assumed an orbital insertion burn happened when it had not, causing the spacecraft to burn propellant to maintain a precise orbit that it was not in. This failure has been tracked down to a failure in the autonomous programming with respect to the elapsed mission time clock.
NASA and Boeing asserted that if astronauts had been on board, not only would they have been safe, but they could have overridden the autonomous system and performed the orbital insertion burn as planned. If that had been the case, the spacecraft would have docked with ISS this morning. Instead, mission planners have determined that they will bring Starliner down on the White Sands Missile Test range Sunday morning.
While the most visible objective of the mission will not be happening, it is important to note that system check unassociated with the ISS docking have gone smoothly. Life support systems are all nominal and in general the spacecraft is very healthy. This same craft is slated to be used for the first crewed orbital test of Starliner in 2020.
In reporter’s questions, many topics related to Starliner were brought up. Boeing was asked if it was all-in on Commercial Crew after having a lackluster performance for the last year. They answered affirmatively. Of the more interesting questions: if NASA were to require another OFT at Boeing’s cost, would they continue? That question went unanswered.
Keep watching, as Boeing attempts to safely land Starliner Sunday morning!