Updated Dec 20, 2019 - Science

Boeing's Starliner won't reach space station after malfunction

A rocket launches in the dark in Florida
Starliner takes flight. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Boeing's uncrewed CST-100 Starliner will not make it to the International Space Station after a serious, post-launch malfunction on Friday.

Why it matters: Boeing was initially expected to launch its first crewed mission to the station in early 2020, but Friday's technical issues may call that already nebulous timeline into question.

Details: Starliner took flight at 6:36 a.m. ET atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral.

  • According to Boeing, the malfunction occurred in an automated clock designed to keep the spacecraft on track while in space.
  • The clock problem put the mission in limbo, forcing Starliner to burn more fuel than expected and precluding a docking with the station.
  • Boeing added that the spacecraft is now in a stable configuration and will be able to come back down to Earth, landing in New Mexico on Sunday at the earliest.

Between the lines: According to NASA, if astronauts were onboard during this flight, they may have been able to salvage the mission and make it to the space station.

  • "We train extensively for this type of contingency, and had we been on board there could have been actions that we could have taken," NASA astronaut Nicole Mann said during a press conference.

The big picture: NASA has contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to fly astronauts to the space station in order to end the space agency's dependence on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft for flights to orbit.

  • Development of these systems has been long-delayed by budget shortfalls and technical issues.

What's next: It's not yet clear what this failure will mean for Boeing's program at large.

  • According to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, it's still too early to tell if the company will be expected to launch another uncrewed test flight ahead of a crewed launch.

Editor's note: This story was updated with new information from a post-launch press conference with NASA and Boeing officials.

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