Boeing’s Starliner Launched Into the Wrong Orbit Thanks to a Clock Error

The botched mission means that ISS astronauts will get fewer Christmas presents this year.
Launch of Boeinig Orbital Flight Test. Image: NASA ​
Launch of Boeinig Orbital Flight Test. Image: NASA

The first spaceflight of Boeing’s Starliner, a spacecraft the company is developing to transport astronauts to and from orbit, was complicated by malfunctions after its launch on Friday.

The mission, called Boeing Orbital Flight Test (OFT), is only carrying cargo, not humans. While it blasted off successfully at 6:36 AM from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the boosters responsible for nudging the spacecraft into Earth orbit did not perform as planned because the clock tracking how much time had elapsed during the mission experienced an error.


The Starliner is in a stable orbit, but its low altitude prevents a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS), which was the central goal of this test mission. OFT is loaded up with 600 pounds of crew equipment, including food, holiday gifts, experiments, and a sensor-packed test dummy called Rosie the Astronaut. The ISS crew is not dependent on this delivery for its survival, though they might miss having a few extra presents for the holidays.

In a press conference, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine emphasized that “a lot of things went right” and said that if the capsule had been carrying astronauts, they could have fixed this malfunction manually, enabling them to dock with the ISS.

Starliner is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, which is a series of partnerships that the agency has made with companies to produce vehicles that can shepherd crews to and from outer space. The program also includes SpaceX’s Dragon 2 crew vehicle, a successor to the Dragon cargo capsule, which is expected to carry its first astronauts to the ISS within the next few months.

The commercial capsules will enable NASA astronauts to travel to and from Earth without having to rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsule, which is currently the only spacecraft available to ISS crews.

Starliner is similar in design to NASA’s Orion capsule, another crewed vehicle in development, though Boeing’s spacecraft is a bit smaller. Boeing plans to have a seating capacity of up to seven astronauts on the crewed version of the Starliner. It is unclear, at this time, if the malfunctions during the OFT flight will affect Boeing’s schedule for future launches, including those involving astronauts.

The capsule was originally expected to dock with the ISS for about a week, before separating from the station on December 28 and returning to land at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Starliner is now scheduled to land in New Mexico within the next few days.