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What Exactly Happened During Boeing’s Starliner Mission to the ISS?

Space News reports on Boeing’s Saturday update about the “Starliner” spacecraft which cut short a test flight last week:

Boeing emphasized the good condition of the spacecraft, which showed “little scorching” from reentry and used only a fraction of its onboard propellant reserved for reentry, which the company said confirmed aerodynamic models of the spacecraft. The interior of the Starliner cabin appeared the same after landing as it did before its Dec. 20 launch from Cape Canaveral, the company noted, evidence that “the Starliner’s fully operational life support system functioned as intended and the layout of the interior is well-suited to support crew members in the future.”

The statement, though, provided no updates on the timer problem that turned what was originally an eight-day mission into a two-day one without a planned docking at the International Space Station. The spacecraft’s mission elapsed timer, which is set by communicating with its Atlas 5 rocket prior to liftoff, was off by 11 hours. That caused the spacecraft to think it was on the wrong phase of its mission after separation from the rocket’s upper stage, triggering thruster firings that used excessive amounts of fuel until ground controllers could take over and turn off the thrusters. Why the timer was off, particularly by such a large amount, any why it wasn’t detected prior to launch is not known. “If I knew, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president for Boeing’s space and launch division, at a Dec. 21 briefing. “We are surprised. A very large body of integrated tests, approved by NASA, didn’t surface this.”

“Further complicating matters, at the time when the engines should have fired, the spacecraft was out of coverage from communications satellite,” notes the Motley Fool:

This prevented override commands from NASA from reaching the spacecraft, correcting the error, and salvaging the mission. By the time NASA was able to reestablish communication, Starliner lacked sufficient fuel to correct course and dock…

NASA and Boeing tried to put a brave face on things, but there’s no denying this was a disappointment.

Although Space News also notes that after the landing, “NASA leadership stated that the problem, once understood and corrected, would not necessarily prevent Boeing from proceeding with a crewed test flight.”

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