Boeing Co's new astronaut capsule failed after liftoff on Friday to climb high enough in orbit to reach the International Space Station, cutting short a critical unmanned test mission in the embattled aerospace giant's race to send humans to the orbital outpost.
The CST-100 Starliner astronaut capsule was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but an automated timer error, which Boeing could not immediately explain, prevented the spacecraft from attaining the orbit that would have put it on track to rendezvous and dock with the space station, NASA said.
The Starliner's debut launch to orbit was a milestone test for Boeing, which is vying with SpaceX, the privately held rocket company of billionaire high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, to revive NASA's human spaceflight capabilities. SpaceX carried out a successful unmanned flight of its Crew Dragon capsule to the space station in March.
The Starliner setback came as Boeing, whose shares dropped 1.6% on the day, sought an engineering and public relations victory in a year punctuated by a corporate crisis over the grounding of its 737 MAX jetliner following two fatal crashes of that aircraft.
The implications for any further design and testing requirements before Starliner is approved for its first crewed mission also remained unclear. The prospect that Boeing might need to repeat an unmanned orbital test flight could substantially delay NASA's timeline and drive up costs.
The plan now is for the capsule to return to Earth on Sunday, about a week ahead of schedule, parachuting to the ground at its designated landing site in White Sands, New Mexico, Boeing's space chief executive, Jim Chilton, said.
The craft, while stable, has already burned too much fuel to risk further manoeuvres trying to dock with the space station at this point, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a news conference.
'We Don't Know'
Boeing officials said they were still seeking to pinpoint the cause of Friday's glitch.
"The spacecraft was not on the timer we expected her to be on," Chilton told reporters. "We don't know if something happened to cause it to be that way."
The spacecraft, a cone-shaped pod with seats for seven astronauts, lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 6:36 am (1136 GMT) atop an Atlas V rocket supplied by Boeing-Lockheed Martin Corp's United Launch Alliance.
Minutes after launch, Starliner separated from the two main rocket boosters, aiming for a link-up with the space station on Saturday some 254 miles (409 km) above Earth. But difficulties ensued with thrusters designed to boost the capsule's orbit to the proper altitude.
"When the spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle we did not get the orbital insertion burn that we were hoping for," Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine said the timer error caused the capsule to burn much of its fuel too soon, preventing it from reaching the desired orbit. NASA and Boeing tried to manually correct the automated errors, but mission control commands sent across NASA's satellite communications network were inexplicably delayed.
"The challenge here has to do with automation," Bridenstine said, adding that astronauts on board would have been able to override the system that caused the malfunction.
Bridenstine said he would not rule out the possibility of allowing Boeing to proceed directly to its first crewed Starliner flight, depending on findings from the investigation of Friday's mishap.
Nicole Mann, one of three astronauts slated to fly on Boeing's first crewed flight test, told reporters, "We are looking forward to flying on Starliner. We don't have any safety concerns."
NASA astronaut Mike Fincke added, "Had we been on board, we could have given the flight control team more options on what to do in this situation."
Space Race Setback
Friday's test represented one of the most daunting milestones required by NASA's Commercial Crew Program to certify a capsule for eventual human spaceflight - a long-delayed goal set back years by development hurdles at both Boeing and SpaceX.
The US space agency awarded $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.5 billion to SpaceX in 2014 to develop separate capsule systems capable of ferrying astronauts to the space station from US soil for the first time since NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011. NASA has since relied on Russian spacecraft for hitching rides to the space station.
NASA initially had expected to begin crewed flights aboard the Starliner and the Crew Dragon capsules in late 2017. Both companies are currently aiming for next year, a time frame reinforced in a statement on Friday from the office of US Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council.
"Vice President Pence was assured that NASA will continue to test and improve, in order to return American astronauts to space on American rockets in 2020," it said.
In a message of sympathy for his Boeing rival, Musk said on Twitter, "Orbit is hard," adding, "Best wishes for landing & swift recovery to next mission."
Occupying one of Starliner's astronaut seats on Friday was a mannequin named Rosie, outfitted with sensors to measure the pressure a real astronaut would endure on the ascent to the space station and during hypersonic re-entry back through Earth's atmosphere.
Reliability Pitch Strained
Boeing Co's stunted Friday debut of its astronaut capsule threatens to dent the US aerospace incumbent's self-declared competitive advantage of mission reliability against the price and innovation strengths of "new space" players like Elon Musk's SpaceX.
Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, has anchored its attempt to repel space visionaries like Musk and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos partly on its mission safety record built up over decades of space travel.
While SpaceX and Bezos' Blue Origin are racing to send their own crewed missions to space for the first time, Boeing or Boeing heritage companies have built every American spacecraft that has transported astronauts into space. And the single-use rockets it builds in partnership with Lockheed Martin Corp have a virtually unblemished record of mission success.
"We are starting from a position of mission reliability and safety," Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg told Reuters earlier this year when asked about SpaceX and other insurgents aiming to disrupt Boeing on everything from astronaut capsules to rockets to satellites.
"There is a difference between putting cargo in space and putting humans in space, and that's a big step. Our very deliberate, safety-based approach for things like CST-100, that will be a differentiator in the long run," Muilenburg said.
The actual technical glitch that stunted Friday's CST-100 Starliner mission to the International Space Station was a timer error though Boeing said it was too early to determine the exact cause of the fault.
Boeing was already working to surmount other technical and safety-related challenges on the multibillion-dollar NASA human spaceflight program. A government watchdog report in November found Boeing demanded "unnecessary" new contract funds from NASA.
Friday's glitch adds to a year of intense scrutiny over how Boeing developed its money-spinning 737 MAX jetliner following twin crashes that killed 346 people in five months.
While there is no link between the 737 MAX crashes and the Starliner setback, one rocket industry executive told Reuters that in both cases problems arose as Boeing was racing to catch up with fast-moving rivals.
Boeing had no immediate comment.
"From a public relations standpoint, this error makes them not look so good because of all the 737 MAX issues," said Teal Group space analyst Marco Caceres. "If you look at this in isolation, I don't think of it as a massive problem for Boeing. There are only two companies picked for this program – that is an enviable place for Boeing to be, as long as nothing tragic happens."
SpaceX successfully launched its own rival Crew Dragon astronaut capsule on a roundtrip journey to the ISS earlier this year, though it faces its own technical problems.
It is challenging Boeing's space business more broadly by slashing the cost of accessing space with pioneering reusable rocket technology.
Bezos' Blue Origin is also developing rockets and capsules for human and cargo space flights.
SpaceX is working toward a manned mission in first-quarter 2020. It declined to comment on Boeing's setback.
There is no overlap between Boeing and SpaceX's separate rocket-and-capsule systems.
But Boeing's woes raise the stakes for SpaceX to perform successfully on upcoming tests as Boeing works to pinpoint the root cause, which may trigger months of delays and new costs if NASA requires design tweaks and a redo of Friday's mission.
"SpaceX continues to move forward even if Boeing has a setback, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine told reporters on Friday. "And, back in April, SpaceX had a setback and Boeing was continuing to move forward."
Bridenstine added that NASA has a number of options on the table to make sure the impact of Boeing's test failure does not cut off access to the space station.
"There are other companies that want to be a part of commercial crew," Bridenstine added, citing Lockheed's Orion capsule for eventual lunar missions.