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Boeing Starliner Crew Capsule Unable To Reach Its Intended Orbit

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A test launch of a Boeing spacecraft designed to fly astronauts to the International Space Station failed to reach orbit. There were no astronauts onboard, just a test dummy named Rosie. But it was a critical test flight for Boeing ahead of the goal to have crewed mission sometime next year. From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne reports.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: About 30 minutes after liftoff, the capsule's onboard clock malfunctioned, causing the spacecraft's computer to fire its engines incorrectly. The unplanned maneuver used too much fuel, preventing the Starliner from rendezvousing with the station. Today's launch was part of NASA's $6 billion program to launch humans from the U.S. and end a nearly decade-long reliance on the Russian Space Agency for rides to the station. When NASA does launch humans from U.S. soil, it will be the first time since 2011, the last space shuttle mission. And this time, says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine...

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JIM BRIDENSTINE: But we're doing it in a way that's never been done before. This time when we go, we're going to go with commercial partners. NASA is not purchasing, owning and operating the hardware. We're buying a service.

BYRNE: It's like calling an Uber to space. NASA is paying for rides to the station relying on two commercial partners, SpaceX and Boeing. Originally, NASA called the U.S. to be back in space by 2017. But the program and its delays date back to the start a decade ago. Funding for the project was awarded in steps, but comprehensive congressional funding was lacking, says former NASA astronaut Sandy Magnus.

SANDY MAGNUS: They were underfunded at the beginning, and so continually fighting this battle of one-year funding plus getting into these continuing resolutions really, really stops the momentum of any technical program.

BYRNE: The program has also faced technical issues, including today's Starliner failure to reach the space station. Boeing's Jim Chilton says the root cause of the vehicle's onboard computer is still unknown.

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JIM CHILTON: What we know is we were - the vehicle was not on the right timer. We don't know why it thought that it wasn't.

BYRNE: NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, who is slated to fly the first Starliner crewed mission, says astronauts on board could have taken over flight controls to fly to the station.

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NICOLE MANN: We are looking forward to flying on Starliner. We don't have any safety concerns.

BYRNE: Space policy analyst Laura Forczyk points out there have also been seemingly more basic problems - parachutes. Both capsules rely on parachutes to safely land the capsules back on Earth.

LAURA FORCZYK: You wouldn't think that parachutes would be hard. It's a technology that's actually decades old. And we've been using it in the space program since the very early days of NASA's vehicle and the - NASA's human spaceflight vehicles. But it turns out that it's really hard to make them efficient and reliable.

BYRNE: Boeing and SpaceX both experienced additional issues with their abort systems. These are the engines that fire and push the capsule to safety should something go wrong mid-flight. Both companies are working on the technical issues, but the pressure is on. NASA runs out of rides to the station this spring. It is in discussions with Russia to possibly purchase more.

Bridenstine says it's too early to know how the incident today will delay Boeing's goal to launch humans on commercial crew vehicles next year. What is clear is that NASA intends to learn from today's failure and apply it to future missions.

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BRIDENSTINE: I want to be really clear. A lot of things went right, and this is why we test. And because we are now in orbit - and, in fact, elevating our orbit - we're going to get a lot more data and a lot more information in the coming days. So this is all very positive.

BYRNE: For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.