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Boeing Woes Mount as Capsule Space Station Docking Scrapped

Justin Bachman

(Bloomberg) -- Boeing Co. scrubbed plans for its CST-100 Starliner to rendezvous with the International Space Station on the capsule’s debut flight, raising doubts over whether the company will be able to ferry astronauts to the orbiting laboratory next year.

The mishap Friday represented another high-profile setback for an aerospace giant that was already contending with the prolonged grounding of its top-selling jetliner, the 737 Max. It also raises the stakes for the craft’s earlier-than-planned Sunday morning landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

NASA and Boeing plan to hold a press conference Saturday at 2 p.m. Washington time to discuss the status of the test flight.

The flight problem jeopardizes U.S. plans for human flights as soon as next year by Boeing, which was hired to carry crew to the ISS as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which is also part of the program, flew its demonstration capsule to the lab in March.

The Starliner took off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 6:36 a.m. Friday near Cape Canaveral, Florida. The capsule, with no one on board, separated and began flight on its own about 15 minutes later. Shortly afterward, a complex, two-part anomaly occurred.

The capsule’s “mission elapsed timing” system was operating on the wrong time, causing the vessel to operate as if it was in a different orbit than it was, Jim Chilton, a Boeing senior vice president, said at a news conference. That meant a planned burn to reach the necessary orbit didn’t occur on schedule while the capsule was simultaneously burning critical propellant reserves.

“The spacecraft was clearly not on the timer we expected it to be,” Chilton said. “That was a surprise. We don’t know why.”

Also, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials believe the Starliner was in a “dead” spot where engine burn commands sent by flight controllers weren’t relayed via satellite. As a result, engineers decided to forgo a planned rendezvous with the space station to conserve fuel and the ability to maneuver for a safe landing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

Boeing on Friday planned two additional thruster burns to raise the Starliner’s orbit, setting up the capsule’s return to Earth. The company and NASA were conferring on whether additional time beyond a planned 48 hours would be prudent and useful for achieving some of the test flight’s goals.

“We are working several options to recover Spacecraft 3 at one of our Western U.S. landing locations within the next 48 hours and are approaching the next few days with guarded optimism of a successful recovery,” Chris Ferguson, director of crew and mission systems for Boeing Co.’s commercial crew program, said in a mission update to Starliner employees.

“Our Landing and Recovery teams are executing their pre-planned contingency deployment to White Sands Missile Range and will be in position by later this evening to make a fully supported recovery,” he said.

Boeing fell 1.2% to $329.36 at 3:16 p.m. in New York. The stock rose 3.4% this year through Thursday while the S&P 500 advanced 28%.

Boeing and NASA are working to determine if the landing -- a precise sequence of de-orbit burns and parachute deployments -- could be affected by the timer issues that marred the flight.

The highly automated Starliner allows crew members to take manual control in such a situation, which might have allowed Starliner to continue its journey to the ISS, officials said.

“We like to think that, had we been on board, we could have given the flight control team more options on what to do in this situation,” NASA astronaut Mike Fincke. The 52-year-old and Nicole Mann, 42, are scheduled to fly on the first crewed Starliner mission.

NASA in 2014 awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station. Since then, both companies have suffered delays that have put the commercial crew program more than two years behind schedule.

Bridenstine said the Starliner issue doesn’t necessarily affect the timing for SpaceX’s plans to fly astronauts next year, nor does it mean Boeing will be required to fly Starliner a second time without crew. Successfully docking an uncrewed capsule with the space station isn’t required for either company to fly personnel, said Steve Stich, deputy manager for the commercial crew program.

Friday’s mishap came a month after NASA’s Inspector General disclosed in a report that the agency had paid Boeing an extra $287.2 million for its Starliner work to adjust future launch schedules caused by delays in the commercial crew program.

Bridenstine defended the additional payment, saying that SpaceX’s previous progress had been greater than Boeing’s because of experience using its Dragon capsule to fly resupply missions. SpaceX’s modification of the capsule to carry astronauts wasn’t as extensive as the task Boeing confronted, he said.

‘Very Comfortable’

NASA is “very comfortable with Boeing as a company,” Bridenstine said at a Thursday news conference. It is inappropriate to link Boeing’s woes with the Max and the difficulties with the Starliner, he said.

“I don’t think that that’s a fair comparison at all,” Bridenstine said. “If you look at Boeing, the people that develop spacecraft are not the same people that develop commercial aircraft.”

NASA and SpaceX plan to perform an in-flight abort test of that company’s Crew Dragon vessel on Jan. 11.

(Adds planned news conference in third paragraph.)

--With assistance from Julie Johnsson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Bachman in Dallas at jbachman2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Case at bcase4@bloomberg.net, Derek Wallbank

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