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Boeing Starliner spacecraft fails its first trip to the space station

Boeing's Starliner, that will fly Starliner's Crew Flight Test, at the acoustic testing at Boeing's spacecraft test facilities in El Segundo, California. (Boeing/NASA/Released)
December 20, 2019

Boeing launched its Starliner spacecraft on Friday morning, but its mission failed when the craft couldn’t achieve correct orbit.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained via Twitter that “Because Starliner believed it was in an orbital insertion burn (or that the burn was complete), the dead bands were reduced and the spacecraft burned more fuel than anticipated to maintain precise control.”

The unmanned launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was intended to be the first Starliner flight to the International Space Station, and was intended serve as one of the final major tests before hosting NASA astronauts.

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The Starliner was connected to the Atlas V rocket’s upper stage for the launch. Although the launch was thought to have been a flawless success in the beginning, with Atlas performing as expected, approximately half an hour into the flight, Boeing realized that the Starliner did not reach orbital position.

Boeing’s engineers “are assessing the next steps” and are said to be attempting to gather as much information from the test as possible to salvage the launch.

“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 told CNBC.

“We are getting good burns and are elevating the orbit of the spacecraft,” Bridenstine also said on Twitter. Bridenstine also explained the launch in a later press conference.

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke said they if astronauts were on board the Starliner, they would have been able to execute manual control of the craft and prevent the situation.

Boeing has been working on the Starliner project since 2010, and were awarded a $4.2 billion NASA contract in 2014.

“The reusable Starliner capsule is being developed in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which will return America’s ability to launch people to low Earth orbit from American soil for the first time since Ferguson commanded the final space shuttle mission in 2011,” a Boeing statement said last month.

The July 8, 2011 Atlantis launch was the last time NASA astronauts launched from the U.S. NASA astronauts have since traveled to the space station via Russian Space Agency craft at $86 million per trip, Fox News reported.

The Starliner was expected to deliver cargo to the space station, including Christmas presents and treats for the space station astronauts.