First unmanned launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew craft for NASA does not go to plan (Updated)

by | Dec 20, 2019 | Commercial human spaceflight, commercial launch services, International Space Station, NASA

With more than a tad of embarrassment, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had to admit that the first launch of the first commercial crew-carrying spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, had not gone to plan. While the spacecraft was launched as planned to a near orbital velocity by a ULA-operated Atlas V N 22, a mission event timer issue meant that the orbital injection was delayed and the subsequent rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) could not take place. The launch was made in an eastward direction at 1136 GMT from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 20 December 2019.

Atlas V N22 flew well…but the Starliner’s timing was out. Courtesy: NASA

The Atlas V rocket’s N 22 designation indicated that it carried no payload shroud (the capsule itself acts as its own protection). It used two solid rocket boosters and a Centaur upper stage employing two RL10A-4-2 engines burning the cryogenic propellant combination liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LOx).

Starliner was meant to fire its Aerojet Rocketdyne OMAC thrusters at 1207 GMT to achieve insertion into a stable orbit, but due to the software timing error this did not occur on time. The master event timer was supposed to receive initial reading data from the launch vehicle, but a software error meant that this was taken from an incorrect memory location on the rocket, resulting in an 11-hour error. An emergency burn and subsequent burns were ordered but even this was delayed due to the expected TDRS communications relay blackout period.

Because of the timing issue the spacecraft’s reaction control system was fired multiple times to keep the vehicle in an insertion-burn attitude, using up propellants – even though the orbit insertion burn by four OMAC thrusters had yet to take place. While this burn did eventually happen, propellant exhaustion meant the spacecraft could not reach the altitude of the ISS orbit and the rendezvous had to be called off. The spacecraft was left in a 221 x 180 km orbit at 51.6 degrees inclination.

This partial launch failure in effect negated the middle one of the three main aims of the mission: to launch successfully; to approach, dock and undock with the ISS successfully; and to re-enter and land successfully. It is not thought that the flight was directly insured.

Update on 24 December 2019: Starliner made a successful re-entry and landed at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 1258 GMT on 22 December 2019.

The first Dragon CST-100 crew capsule landed safely in unmanned condition. Courtesy: Boeing via Jonathan McDowell

Further Update on 6 January 2020:  Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenberg has resigned after this latest engineering failure by Boeing. Muilenberg was already under pressure due to engineering/cost overrun problems with some of its military programmes, but most especially due to the suspension from flight operations of the Boeing 737 Max after its control system was found to be fault in two fatal air accidents.  Boeing’s chairman David Calhoun takes over as CEO, with his Chairman role now being taken over by non-executive Lawrence Kellner.

Update on 10 February 2020: Boeing revealed that software used to control thruster firings for separation of the service module from reentry module had been set for the wrong phase of flight. Had the problem not been found and fixed in time, a collision would have occurred.

 

About Seradata

Seradata produce the renowned SpaceTrak Launch & Satellite Database. Trusted by 100 of the world’s leading Space organisations, SpaceTrak is a fully queryable database used for market analysis, failure/risk assessment, spectrum analysis and space situational awareness (SSA).

For more information go to www.seradata.com/spacetrak

Related Articles

Amazon’s Kuiper constellation makes “largest ever” commercial launch order: a total of 68 launches for Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA

As part of the ramp-up towards the launching of its Kuiper mega-constellation, Amazon placed what is believed to be the Read more

Satellite 2022: Some launch providers looking forward to this year, others into next

  During the Satellite 2022 conference we were provided with plans for this year from some American launch providers. Rocket Read more

Analysis: Putin orders Russian tanks to roll into Ukraine…and spaceflight will be affected (Updated/Corrected)

On 21 February, Russia’s President Putin ordered troops and tanks into disputed territories of Donetsk and Luhansk for “peacekeeping”, which Read more

Atlas V 551 launches STP-3 mission with STPSAT-6 aboard

A ULA operated Atlas V 551 rocket successfully launched the US Space Force STP 3 mission which involved the STPSAT-6 Read more

Atlas V launches Trojan asteroid surveyor Lucy on mission for NASA…then has trouble locking out one of her solar arrays

An Atlas V rocket from ULA (United Launch Alliance) has launched a Lockheed Martin-built, NASA Discovery-class spacecraft into orbit. Lift-off Read more

Landsat 9 has been launched to continue NASA Earth sciences project

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket has carried the NASA Landsat 9 (and four co-payloads) into low Earth Read more

ULA launches SBIRS GEO-5 to bolster American missile launch detection capability

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched the SBIRS GEO-5, TDO 3 and TDO 4 satellites into a GTO orbit Read more

Delta IV Heavy launches NRO L-82 reconnaissance satellite

A Delta IV Heavy rocket, operated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched the NRO L-82 payload into orbit on Read more

Categories

Archives

Tags

nasaspacexecoreviewsissesaArianespacevideochina25virgin galacticULAfalcon 9RoscosmosDGAaviation weekaresIGTsoyuzawardsBeidouspacespacewalkSatellite broadcastingmoonInternational Space StationevarussiaCargo Return VehicleBlue OriginmarsblogresearchboeingimpactAirbus DSspaceshiptwomarshyperboladelayjaxademocratISROobamaorionhypertextrocketgoogle lunar prizelunarVegalaunchtourismbarack obamaconstellationStarlinkfiguresEutelsatnorthRocket LabSESFalcon 9v1.2FT Block 5spaceflightnode 2fundedOneWebRaymond Lygorome2009Express MD-2Atlas Vthales alenia spacess2dassault aviation2008Lucywk2aviationElon MuskLockheed MartinIntelsatradioukexplorationtestmissiledocking portsstlinternetsuborbitalChina Manned Space Engineeringsts-1222010newspapercotsgalileoAriane 5flightmissile defensespaceportspace tourismExpress AMU 1Ariane 5 ECAaltairbuildspace stationProton MSLSshuttleIntelsat 23scaled compositesVirgin OrbitCosmosinternational astronautical congressEuropean Space AgencyrulesElectronbudgetnew yorkhanleyLauncherOneshenzhouspace shuttleatvVietnamboldenAriane 6congressMojaveGuiana Space CenterOrbital ATKNorthrop GrummaniackscSpace Systems/LoralUK Space AgencylawscnesUS Air ForceInmarsatILSprotonnew shepardsoyuz 2-1aTalulah RileyLong March 4CApollousadarpaSkyloneuAstriumastronautlanderLong March 4BpicturebasedragoneventLong March 2CSSLfiveWednesdayAprilinterviewSea Launchlunar landerfalconSNC50thlink7successorcustomeratlantisSpace InsuranceLong March 2D/2conferencenational space symposiumorbiterTelesat15