Eras end fast at NASA: The moment Apollo 17 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on December 19, 1972, America’s initial lunar ambitions came to an end. The moment the shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2011, that was the close of a program that had seen 135 shuttles fly.
Starting a new era, on the other hand, can take a little more time. That hard truth was evident this morning at 6:36 AM local time, when an Atlas V rocket carrying the Boeing Starliner spacecraft successfully blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 41. Less than half an hour later, it reached orbit, where it would prepare for a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS), and a one week-stay, after which it would return to Earth for a parachute-assisted thump-down in White Sands, New Mexico. It was to be the Starliner’s final uncrewed flight before a team of astronauts makes the maiden voyage aboard the spacecraft sometime in the first half of 2020. But while the spacecraft remains in a “stable orbit,” Boeing and NASA have since confirmed its orbital insertion was “off-nominal,” making a rendezvous with the ISS impossible.
With these efforts ongoing, a new age of American crews launching in American spacecraft from American soil is potentially in the balance. At a hastily assembled press conference less than three hours after the launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, along with other NASA brass, Boeing officials, and astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann—both of whom are slated to fly the Starliner—offered an impressively candid explanation for the causes of the problem, even if they were causes that seemed almost comically avoidable.
For one thing, the spacecraft was operating on the wrong mission clock at the time it reached space, meaning it thought it was at a different altitude, burned too much fuel too soon and settled into a too-low orbit. It does not now have enough fuel left to climb to the space station’s 250-mile high orbit.
“The timing was off, and what ended up happening was that the spacecraft tried to maintain a
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