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Boeing successfully landed its troubled Starliner capsule today

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is guided into position above a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 21, 2019. NASA/Cory Huston

The first orbital flight test of Boeing’s Starliner, the capsule which will eventually ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, has not gone as planned. On Friday morning, the craft was scheduled to launch an uncrewed mission to the ISS, but it entered the wrong orbit and did not made it to the space station.

The Starliner made it to a stable 250-kilometer circular orbit, but the Boeing team chose not to attempt to dock with the ISS due to limited fuel availability. Instead, the craft headed back to Earth and landed early on Sunday morning.

In a press conference, Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch Division, confirmed that the problems during the test were caused by a timing issue which led to the autonomous systems positioning the craft incorrectly. The craft needed to connect with the Atlas V rocket to get the correct time, but something went wrong in this process. This resulted in the craft thinking it was at a different point in the mission than it actually was, which led to it entering the wrong orbit.

NASA and Boeing representatives emphasized that the Starliner was a “healthy spacecraft” and an “able vessel” and that as far as they could tell at this early stage, there were no hardware problems onboard. The problem seems to be purely a software issue. But Boeing did admit that it had written the code which appears to have caused the problem.

“The plan was for Starliner to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station and return home safely to Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “While a lot of things went right, the uncrewed spacecraft did not reach the planned orbit and will not dock to the International Space Station. This is in fact why we test. Teams worked quickly to ensure the spacecraft was in a stable orbit and preserved enough fuel to ensure a landing opportunity.”

The Starliner landed safely just before 5 a.m. PT on Sunday in the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, marking “the first time an American-made human-rated capsule has landed on land,” according to NASA TV.

Now the landing is complete, there will be a news conference about the test flight featuring NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch Division, and Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. You can watch the conference using the video below, beginning at 7 a.m. PT.

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