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How Bad Luck Foiled Efforts to Get Starliner Back on Course toward Space Station

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft soars into space after launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 20, 2019. Down below, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, ULA president and CEO Tory Bruno and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine observe from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft soars into space after launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 20, 2019. Down below, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, ULA president and CEO Tory Bruno and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine observe from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
(Image: © Joel Kowsky/NASA)

Bad luck may have played a considerable role in the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule's failure to reach the International Space Station (ISS) as planned.

Starliner launched Friday morning (Dec. 20) on an uncrewed mission called Orbital Flight Test (OFT), which was designed to demonstrate the capsule's ability to get NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. But Starliner encountered problems shortly after liftoff and ended up getting stranded in an orbit that's incompatible with an ISS rendezvous.

Those problems apparently stemmed from an error with Starliner's onboard timing system, NASA officials and Boeing representatives said during a postlaunch news conference. Starliner seemed to think it was conducting an orbit-insertion burn when it actually was not. As a result, the capsule performed a series of unnecessary orientation-maintaining firings of its small reaction-control thrusters, using up lots of propellant in the process.

Related: Boeing's 1st Starliner Flight Test in Photos

The spacecraft's handlers tried to troubleshoot the issue — and may well have succeeded if Starliner had been in a slightly different patch of sky, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during Friday's news conference.

"By the time we were able to get signals up to actually command it to do the orbital insertion burn, it was a bit too late," he said. "And the reason it was too late is because it appears — and remember, all of this is very early and preliminary, and we're learning things moment by moment — but it appears as though we were between TDRS communication satellites, which meant we couldn't get the command signal to tell the spacecraft that it needed to do the orbital insertion burn soon enough."

TDRS stands for "Tracking and Data Relay Satellites," and they do just what their name describes: provide a communications link between ground controllers and spacecraft. NASA currently has 10 operational TDRS satellites in geosynchronous orbit, about 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) above Earth, so it seems that Starliner was quite unlucky to be out of hailing range during this morning's crucial moments.

But, as Bridenstine stressed, this is a working hypothesis, not a confirmed diagnosis. And the positioning of Starliner relative to the TDRS flock doesn't address the root cause of Friday's problems, which lies with the capsule's "mission elapsed timing" system. 

Indeed, further analyses have revealed that Starliner apparently wasn't pointing its antenna toward the TDRS craft as expected, likely as a result of the timing problem, Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch Division, explained during a news conference on Saturday (Dec. 21).

The Starliner team is still figuring out what exactly happened with that timing error and how to prevent it from happening again, Bridenstine and others said. (The NASA chief also said that, if astronauts had been on board, they likely would have recognized and fixed the problem in time for Starliner to get back on its way to the ISS.)

The new OFT mission profile has been worked out in a broad sense, however. Starliner won't dock with the ISS now after all, and the mission will be significantly shorter than its originally planned eight days. The spacecraft team now aims to bring the capsule down on Sunday morning (Dec. 22) at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico (which was also the primary target site for the originally envisioned OFT).

Pulling off a safe landing will be a major milestone for the revised OFT, NASA officials and Boeing representatives said. And Starliner's 48 hours in orbit should end up teaching them a lot of useful information about the capsule's behavior in the space environment, they added.

OFT was supposed to clear the way for Starliner's first crewed flight, a demonstration mission to the ISS that had been targeted for mid-2020. It's too early to speculate about how that timeline may change, Bridenstine said. For example, NASA has not yet decided if it will ask Boeing to conduct another version of OFT, or if Starliner's next flight to the ISS will be the crewed demonstration mission.

Boeing has been developing Starliner with funding from NASA's Commercial Crew Program, most recently a 2014 contract that awarded the aerospace giant $4.2 billion to finish work on the capsule and fly six operational missions to and from the ISS.

SpaceX got a similar, $2.6 billion deal in 2014 to get its Crew Dragon capsule up and running. The main goal, from NASA's perspective, is to bring an orbital human spaceflight capability back to American shores. NASA has been dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get astronauts to and from the ISS since the space shuttle fleet was grounded in July 2011.

Crew Dragon successfully flew its version of OFT, a six-day uncrewed flight called Demo-1, in March of this year. SpaceX is gearing up for a key in-flight test of the capsules' emergency-escape system next month. If that goes well, the company will start prepping for Demo-2, its crewed demonstration mission to the ISS.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Saturday to provide new information about the attempts to hail Starliner via TDRS. This information was revealed during a news conference on Saturday.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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  • K4PEW
    It sounds absurd to read that "Luck" is a reason for problems encountered in a scientific article. "Luck" is not a thing or a concept or even an idea. It is not a "thing", and in fact is a nothing. Luck is not part of science or technology and should not be mentioned.

    When you say that it was bad "luck" it sounds like a way to excuse the work of those who failed to properly execute the processes needed to complete the mission.
    Reply
  • Gigabob
    One bad Starliner outcome on a training run is "bad" luck. But coming from a company that has ridden the debacle of the 737 Max into the ground - not once, but twice - and miswired the 777 - we are not looking at an issue of luck - we are looking at the Trumping of a once trusted American Icon in aerospace that is building a new reputation for incompetence in an area that does not allow for mistakes.

    My father was a missile systems trouble shooter for over 25 years. His most poignant observation was that in firing a rocket you could do 10,000 things right - but one mistake cost you a mission - and several hundred million dollars. That is why discipline and focus were so critical to him. Boeing used to have that. Here is to hoping that someday they regain it. Can't though with current leadership.
    Reply
  • fwfulton
    What ever happened to failure is NOT an option. Seems to be Boeing has a big ego, and thinks their Sh*t don't stink. Between this and the 737 Max problems; Boeing needs a top down address of their corporate structure. A man's life should never depend on Luck!
    Reply
  • mikebux
    Wrong booster. Early MECO
    Reply
  • Gorby
    Gigabob, I couldn't agree more. What is also interesting is that Boeing was given $4.2 billion and SpaceX was given $2.6 billion and yet while SpaceX started their project completely from scratch, it has so accomplished so much more in the less time and with about half the funding. Personally I expected greater things from Boeing with their past engineering accomplishments in terrestrial and non terrestrial flight, but now I am beginning to wonder if they even have the appropriate engineering talent to successfully complete this project at all. I mean seriously, a timing issue and no apparent correction from any backup systems? I thought NASA was big on tertiary redundantcy for mission critical systems, but we will have to wait until the final findings are released to see what actually failed and why it wasn't addressed by a backup system.
    Reply
  • Brian
    Admin said:
    Bad luck may have played a considerable role in the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule's failure to reach the International Space Station as planned.

    How Bad Luck Foiled Efforts to Get Starliner Back on Course toward Space Station : Read more
    Are you sh*****g me?!
    This is SCIENCE! This is also a troubled company with a history of a lack of dual redundancy!
    Got any burning batteries?
    YET! Boeing still gets the most NASA bucks and never had to perform the IFA test!
    Still feeding your favorites NASA?
    Elon will shove it where the sun does shine!
    Luck is NOT a scientific concept, you d bag!
    Reply
  • T.T.Maxx
    Yes it was bad luck for starliner. For the second time! First was shoots on pad abort. And to try to drag SpaceX into this "timing issue" is unbelievable in itself. Very obvious coddling of Boeing by NASA. No need to appoint a winner when you can just hand out participation trophies! Makes me uneasy to say the least.
    Reply
  • Nightbreaker
    Boeing FUs again.
    Reply
  • Lagrange
    Nasa's Jim Bridenstine- "A lot of things went right." Uh...Jim... did the Boing-Boing capsule reach the correct orbit? No. Is it going to complete its flight to the space station? Nooo. Deliver the cargo? Nooo. Complete the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), the very purpose of which is to demonstrate the capsule's ability to get NASA astronauts TO and FROM the ISS? Nooo. And now, after a day of bizarre, 'nothing to see here' public relation nonsense from Bridenstine, he DOESN'T KNOW if Boing-Boing will be required to fly a SUCCESSFUL OFT before astronauts climb aboard it? O-M-G! This kind of thinking has flourished at NASA before...and it didn't end well.
    Reply
  • T.T.Maxx
    And here is the kicker quote of that day Lagrange: " Assuming that Starliner lands as expected, "the odds are high, really the same as if we were on our way to rendezvous," that the capsule will land safely and be able to be refurbished and reused, Chilton told Space.com. "We ended up in a place in space we didn't expect to be, but we don't see hardware issues that would drive a different refurbishment of turnaround."" All this and it hasn't even come down yet.
    Reply