The time had come on December 20 at 1:36 p.m. Central European time: Boeing's new spaceship, the CST-100 Starliner, took off for its first test flight without a crew. Three hours earlier, the so-called Blue Team had once again boarded the spaceship on the fully fueled rocket to carry out the same preparations for launch that the crew would use later on. This time only a plush snoopy was left. The preparation was completed an hour before the start. Then we went to the International Space Station.
The plan was to launch the spacecraft 15 minutes after launch in an orbit with a highest point of 181 kilometers and a lowest point of 73 kilometers. Boeing says that the spaceship is now in stable orbit. However, it would crash after an orbit.
The Starliner spaceship has to lift this orbit with its own drive in order not to lose speed due to the friction of the remaining atmosphere and to re-enter the atmosphere. This maneuver should be performed 37 minutes after the start. Instead, flight control announced that the maneuver was being delayed. However, it can only be carried out at certain points in the orbit. After all, it was possible to put the spaceship in an attitude in which the solar cells can charge the batteries on board.
The Boeing livestream on Youtube has ended. No more details were given on the orbit of the spaceship. It is completely unknown whether the current orbit remains stable for a long time or whether the spaceship is about to crash. A comment at the end of the live stream only said that the spaceship was in one "stable position" located.
Addendum of December 20, 2019, 3:04 p.m.
NASA boss Jim Bridenstine now gave a reason for the malfunction: The mission clock on board the spaceship indicated the wrong time, so that the control software did not adopt the correct orientation of the spaceship for the maneuver. After no more information has been announced in the meantime, the current orbit of the spaceship with 186 km at the lowest and 221 km at the highest point. This orbit is stable for a few orbits. The flight to the International Space Station was canceled due to excessive fuel consumption.
The spaceship should automatically continue to fly to the ISS, where it should dock on Saturday, December 21, at 2:08 p.m. Central European Time and remain for a week. The landing on Earth was scheduled for Saturday, December 28, 2019 at 11:47 a.m. Due to the problems with the spaceship that Boeing now has to solve, these schedules are no longer valid.
Together with the SpaceX Dragon spaceship, the Starliner is expected to launch American astronauts into space again next year. Since the last flight of the space shuttle in 2011, Nasa has had to rely on flights with the Russian Soyuz racts. Boeing uses a modified Atlas V launch vehicle to launch, which is equipped with a Russian RD-180 main engine in the first stage.
In order to have enough power to launch the 13-ton spacecraft, the rocket was equipped with two solid rockets and a newly designed upper stage with two engines. Usually the upper stage flies only with one of the relatively low thrust RL-10 engines. With only one engine, the upper stage accelerates only half as fast and works longer against gravity, which requires more fuel. The second engine also provides redundancy if one of the engines fails during flight.
SpaceX already carried out the test flight of its spaceship in March. However, this spaceship was later destroyed during preparations to test the launch cancellation system. The system should be tested on the rocket during the flight. This test is now scheduled for January 2020 and is the prerequisite for flights with crew for SpaceX.
Boeing, on the other hand, will not have to conduct a comparable test. Instead, Nasa is satisfied that the system works from the ground during a test. The behavior of the security systems during the rocket launch should only be checked by simulations. When the test was performed from the ground on November 4, however, only two out of three parachutes opened. Boeing nevertheless called the test a success.
Addendum of December 20, 2019, 5:54 p.m.
A few hours after the launch, Nasa announced further details in a press conference. In the context of this conference there was criticism of NASA's handling of the problems of the test flights.