The Boeing Starliner flight can be considered a relative success, after it landed at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. But there are still many questions for NASA to answer, despite the fact that the capsule very nearly hit its bullseye.
Good news for Boeing and NASA included the fact that the capsule returned in what was described as “pristine” condition. Starliner will now spend several days in transit, ahead of shipping from New Mexico back to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where Boeing will review data that has been captured by on-board sensors.
However, even if the data-capturing process appears to have slightly erred from what was planned. Jim Chilton, Boeing’s senior vice president of the Space and Launch division, conceded that the capsule had effectively grabbed an incorrect coefficient, due to the fact that engineers “started the clock at the wrong time”.
This then had a knock-on impact on the amount of fuel consumed by the capsule. Because of the incorrect calculations of engineers, the service module thrusters contained on Starliner consumed significantly more propellants than would usually be the case, in order to ensure that the vehicle maintained a very precise altitude in respect to the ground.
Although flight controllers realized that there was an error, it took them quite some time in order to establish a satisfactory communications link, as the spacecraft had veered away from its predicted route.
This was embarrassing enough for Boeing and NASA in and of itself, but it also had a serious impact on the Starliner mission. The craft did not have sufficient reserves in order to approach the International Space Station, where it was planned to rendezvous and dock with an orbiting laboratory.
Despite the fact that most of the flight went very well, according to reports from Boeing, the manufacturer will still obviously face questions over the error. This is especially true considering that Starliner has faced considerable delays, which has meant that its go live ETA for carrying actual astronauts has been continually pushed back.
Nonetheless, the fact that Starliner met around 85-90% of its objectives can be considered a reasonable return for the capsule. The vehicle flew smoothly in orbit, its life support systems worked efficiently, and its landing was particularly safe and controlled.
But even the level of difficulty experienced by Starliner will mean that NASA faces a serious predicament. The space agency must consider carefully whether the results were good enough for the craft to be tested with human occupants. Clearly any problems with manned spacecraft are more problematical and controversial.
NASA will need to assess whether or not the problems encountered represent systemic errors in the flight software of Starliner. It may be more prudent for the space organization to run a second test without a crew, but this would push back the ETA for the project even further.
Space travel is always complex, and running regular travel to the International Space Station doesn’t seem likely to become simple any time soon.