Test Flight to Space Station Aborted

Today’s test flight of Starliner, NASA’s new, crewed spacecraft was less than stellar. A clock set to the wrong time prevented it from docking at the International Space Station. Find out more.

Growing up in the seventies, I think every child tried their hand at building plastic scale models and gluing them together with Testor’s Plastic Cement. (Was there any other brand?)

I put together various ships and cars and even some monsters. The scale model I was most proud of finishing was a replica of the space shuttle Columbia.

The space shuttle represented the next generation of space vehicles after the Apollo program wound up. They were the first spacecraft that were reusable.


One drawback of the Apollo program was that all of the leading-edge equipment onboard went to waste. NASA used all of the futuristic gear crammed onto those Saturn V rockets towering over the launch pad only once.

The astronauts discarded everything but the command module, either in the ocean, in space or on the moon. This meant that spacecraft used in test flights like Apollo 7 through to Apollo 10 could not be recovered, examined or refurbished. NASA’s contractors built every piece of equipment for each mission from scratch again and again.

We were all captivated by the stunning next-generation test flight of the prototype shuttle that NASA called Enterprise. The orbiter looked like a futuristic passenger airliner reminiscent of the Concord.


Space shuttles needed rocket boosters to reach escape velocity, but they could re-enter the atmosphere as a glider and land on a runway. The splashdowns we had all come to expect became a thing of the past. Ground crews could then refurbish and launch them back into space multiple times. That was revolutionary. John Logsdon discusses the history of the space shuttle program and NASA in general in his book, The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration: NASA and the Incredible Story of Human Spaceflight.

Two of the shuttle program’s missions ended in tragedy. One disaster involved Challenger, and the other saw the destruction of Columbia. As with all aviation, the most significant hazards were on takeoff and landing. Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff and Columbia broke up during re-entry.

George W. Bush phased out the space shuttle program, ending in 2011. The plan was to replace the space shuttle with a next-generation space vehicle called Orion, which NASA included as part of the Constellation program. Orion and Constellation were shelved for budget reasons by Barack Obama.

Nasa has had to go cap in hand to the russians

Winding down the space shuttle program without a replacement vehicle left the United States in a humiliating position. It had no independent way to launch American astronauts into space using American rockets from American soil. That has meant that, for the last decade or so, NASA has had to go cap in hand to the Russians. Astronauts have to hitch rides on the 70s-era Soyuz system to get to the International Space Station (ISS).

That is, until today. This morning, NASA announced the launch of the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. This test flight is un-crewed and fully automated. Still, Starliner is planned to be part of the next generation of crewed space vehicles under NASA’s innovative public-private partnership strategy called Commercial Crew Development.

As I’m writing this, however, NASA is announcing that the test flight so far is only a qualified success. Although the rocket launched properly and achieved what NASA is calling an “unplanned but stable orbit,” it had to abort its planned rendezvous with the International Space Station.

failure was due to a clock set to the wrong time

The glitch in the test flight wasn’t caused by a failure in the powerful, newly human-rated Atlas V rocket. It also wasn’t the fault of any of the leading edge prototype technology onboard. Instead, the failure was due to a clock set to the wrong time.

One of the mission elapsed timers (MET’s) on the rocket was not synchronized with the rest of the vehicle’s systems. After Starliner separated from its launch vehicle, the inaccurate timer delayed the orbital insertion burn needed from Starliner’s rockets to head for the ISS.

It also caused the spacecraft to maintain an excessively precise level of attitude control. This wasted propellant, leaving the orbiter without enough fuel reserve to reach the ISS and return safely. In response, the flight control team quickly went to Plan B and steered Starliner into a different earth orbit.

starliner will land safely at white sands

The orbit is safe and stable. Many of the tests NASA and Boeing planned for the mission will still take place. Most importantly, Starliner will be able to re-enter and land safely at the White Sands Space Harbor facility in New Mexico as initially planned.

As NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine put it, “A lot of things went right. This is why we test.” Astronauts Mike Finke and Nicole Mann each made a noteworthy point. If this glitch had happened on a human-crewed mission, the crew would have corrected it right away.

Once they did, they would likely have managed to reach the ISS despite the mishap. So, this malfunction is an argument for, rather than against, going ahead with human-crewed missions aboard Starliner. Artificial intelligence still isn’t as talented as it needs to be.

human crew would have corrected it right away

There is a principle that goes all the way back to the original Mercury 7 team in the 60s. NASA has always decreed that astronauts are pilots and must have full manual control over their craft. Mann and Finke assured the public that this was still the case today with Starliner.

The plan from here is still being worked out. Starliner’s scheduled landing time of 7:30 am EST Sunday remains feasible. However, it’s become tentative now because flight control needs to think through what tests can and should be done under these new circumstances. It may be advisable to delay re-entry for a day or so to accommodate further tests.

This morning’s events are not a failure, and they shouldn’t be viewed as adding insult to injury. The US will overcome its inability to send astronauts into space independently despite this hiccup.

us will overcome this hiccup

Astronauts are today’s role models, and their missions are modern-day hero’s journeys. Soon, America and affiliated space programs around the world will once again take pride in their crews known to have the “right stuff.”

For the moment, the priority is to learn everything that can be gleaned from this test flight and find out why the errant MET wasn’t synchronized correctly. All the parties involved in this public-private partnership told the media that they were eager to understand and solve the problem.


We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration: NASA and the Incredible Story of Human Spaceflight
NASA Discovery Program – 4 Bids to Explore Solar System
The Gift of the Apollo 11 Mission
LightSail2: Come Sail Away
Why Mars? Why Not Life on Venus
The 5 Big Questions We Need Cosmology to Answer


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