Officials say spacecraft is in stable orbit but problem may delay mission to carry Nasa astronauts.
Boeing’s new Starliner capsule ran into trouble and went off course in orbit minutes after blasting off on Friday on its first test flight, a crucial dress rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts.
Initially everything went flawlessly as the Atlas V rocket launched with the Starliner shortly before sunrise. But half an hour into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule had not got into the position needed to get to the International Space Station.
Officials stressed the capsule was in a safe and stable orbit. The Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that the capsule burned up more fuel than planned and controllers were using its thrusters to raise its orbit.
With less fuel on board, it put the rest of the flight in jeopardy. The Starliner was supposed to reach the space station on Saturday and remain for a week.
Thousands of spectators gathered to witness Starliner’s premiere flight. The United Launch Alliance rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and was visible for at least five minutes, its white contrail a brilliant contrast against the dark sky. The mood quickly turned somber as news of the setback trickled out. Nasa officials deferred to Boeing for updates.
“Safe and stable is the important thing right now,” Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Kaplan told reporters.
This was Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, Nasa’s other commercial crew provider, which successfully completed a similar demonstration last March. SpaceX has one last hurdle – a launch abort test – before carrying two Nasa astronauts in its Dragon capsule, possibly by spring.
A successful Starliner demo could have seen Boeing launching astronauts by the summer. But that might not be possible now.
The US needs companies competing like this, Bridenstine said, to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people. He stressed the need for more than one company in case of problems that kept one grounded.
The space agency handed over station deliveries to private businesses, first cargo and then crews, in order to focus on getting astronauts back to the moon and to Mars.
Commercial cargo ships took flight in 2012, starting with SpaceX. Crew capsules were more complicated to design and build, and parachute and other technical problems pushed the first launches from 2017 to 2020. Last April, a SpaceX crew capsule exploded during a ground test.
It has been nearly nine years since Nasa astronauts launched from the US. The last time was 8 July 2011, when Atlantis – now on display at the Kennedy Space Center – made the final space shuttle flight.
Since then, Nasa astronauts have travelled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency. The Soyuz rides cost Nasa up to $86m each time.
Chris Ferguson commanded that last shuttle mission. Now a test pilot astronaut for Boeing and one of the Starliner’s key developers, he is assigned to the first Starliner crew with Nasa’s Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann. All three were at control centres to watch the launch.
Built to accommodate seven people, the white capsule with black and blue trim will typically carry four or five. It’s 16.5ft (5m) tall with its attached service module and 15ft (4.5 metres) in diameter.
For the test flight, the Starliner carried Christmas treats and presents for the six space station residents, hundreds of tree seeds similar to those that flew to the moon on Apollo 14, the original air travel ID card belonging to Boeing’s founder and a mannequin named Rosie in the commander’s seat.
The test dummy – named after the bicep-flexing riveter of the second world war – wore a red polka dot hair bandanna just like the original Rosie, and Boeing’s custom royal blue spacesuit.
The flight was designed to test all systems, from the vibrations and stresses of liftoff to the 28 December touchdown at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with parachutes and air bags to soften the landing. Even the test dummy is packed with sensors.
On the eve of the flight, Bridenstine said he was “very comfortable“ with Boeing, despite the prolonged grounding of the company’s 737 Max jets. The spacecraft and aircraft sides of the company are different, he noted. Boeing has long been involved in Nasa’s human spacecraft programme, from Project Mercury to the shuttle and station programmes.
Boeing began preliminary work on the Starliner in 2010, a year before Atlantis flew for the last time.
In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX made the final cut. Boeing got more than $4bn to develop and fly the Starliner, while SpaceX got $2.6bn for a crew-version of its Dragon cargo ship.
Nasa wants to make sure every reasonable precaution is taken with the capsules, designed to be safer than the old shuttles.
“We’re talking about human spaceflight,” Bridenstine cautioned. “It’s not for the faint of heart. It never has been, and it’s never going to be.”