Right on schedule Friday morning, an Atlas V rocket launched the Starliner spacecraft into a planned suborbital trajectory. This was a critical mission for NASA and Boeing, as the company sought to use this test flight to prove that its capsule was ready to launch humans into space next year.
After being released by the rocket, Starliner was supposed to use its Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control engines to provide the thrust needed to reach a stable orbit and begin the process of catching up to the International Space Station.
But then something happened, and the spacecraft did not reach its intended orbit.
Boeing officials called the problem an “off-nominal insertion” and later Friday morning released the following statement: “The spacecraft currently is in a safe and stable configuration. Flight controllers have completed a successful initial burn and are assessing next steps. Boeing and NASA are working together to review options for the test and mission opportunities available while the Starliner remains in orbit.”
An industry source told Ars that the rocket performed nominally during the mission, so the problem appears to have been with the spacecraft itself.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that, “Because Starliner believed it was in an orbital insertion burn (or that the burn was complete), the dead bands were reduced and the spacecraft burned more fuel than anticipated to maintain precise control.” This will likely preclude a docking attempt with the International Space Station.
As a result, it appears that Boeing is mostly focused on bringing Starliner back down to the ground safely. This story will be updated later Friday as NASA and Boeing provide additional information.