Boeing’s aborted Starliner capsule test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) this weekend was a wild ride. Having successfully launched on a rocket from Cape Canaveral on Friday, just 30 minutes into the flight it started to go wrong, ultimately failing to dock with the ISS and officials aborted the mission. However, on Sunday it landed safely back on Earth in a historic landing, becoming the first crew capsule to ever touch down on US soil.
One of the unforeseen casualties of this aborted mission, however, is that that the spacecraft, loaded up with Christmas presents for the six astronauts and cosmonauts spending the holiday period aboard the ISS, failed to deliver its precious cargo. Yes, our space travelers will be present-free this Christmas.
After thanking NASA for its support during the tense two-day efforts to bring the spacecraft safely home, Boeing’s senior vice president of Space and Launch Jim Chilton added in a press conference Sunday that he'd "like to express Boeing's regrets to the ISS crew to whom we did not bring the Christmas presents. Not cool."
Despite the failed docking, the safe return of the capsule has been hailed a success, and NASA has declared there is a lot of good data we can take from this.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, along with SpaceX’s Dragon, is part of NASA’s Commerical Crew Program, reusable spacecraft the US hopes will replace Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft – currently the only way to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.
Designed to take up four astronauts, Friday’s launch was Starliner’s first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test. Onboard, alongside the ill-fated Christmas presents, were crash test dummy Rosie – named after Rosie the Riveter, the iconic boiler suit-and-bandana-wearing star of the WWII campaign to recruit women workers for the defense industries – and Snoopy.
It became apparent something had gone wrong not long after the launch on Friday, December 20. Barely half an hour into the flight, the capsule failed to fire its thrusters, which would have set its course for the ISS, and ended up in the wrong orbit. It then burnt so much fuel to correct its path, it didn’t have enough left to make its ISS dock rendezvous and the decision was made to abort the attempt.
The capsule then spent nearly 50 hours in a lower stable orbit so they could continue to carry out some of the mission’s other objectives before returning safely to Earth, including testing the sensors attached to Rosie that help prove Starliner will be safe for future human crews.
According to Boeing, the spacecraft experienced a “timing anomaly,” which involved an improperly set clock that caused the capsule to be around 11 hours off, jumping to a later stage of its mission, releasing and burning too much fuel.
Having made the decision to abort docking with the space station, the space agency concentrated on collecting as much data as possible before returning to Earth on Sunday December 22, in what turned out to be a spectacularly successful soft landing in the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called it an “absolute bullseye” landing, while astronaut Sunita “Suni” Williams, who will command the next mission using the spacecraft, called it “picture perfect”. As commander, Williams also got to announce the name of the capsule, as decided by the crew. It went to space known as the Starliner capsule, and returned Calypso, after Jacque Cousteau's ship.
As for Christmas aboard the ISS, the astronauts and cosmonauts may not have the presents and holiday treats they were expecting, but you can still give them a wave as they whizz by visible in the sky on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so they know they're not forgotten.