Boeing and NASA's test capsule launch didn't go exactly according to plan on Friday due to an issue with the spacecraft's timer.
The automated timing error — which caused the capsule to burn more fuel than anticipated — will prevent it from reaching the International Space Station (ISS) as was previously intended, instead, it will return to earth as early as Sunday, according to The Associated Press.
“It appears the mission was using mission elapsed timer that was not the mission the vehicle was on,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president of the Space and Launch division of Boeing, said at a press conference. “The vehicle was not on the right timer, we don’t know why it wasn’t.”
We are getting good burns and are elevating the orbit of the spacecraft.— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 20, 2019
The capsule launched on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 6:36 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Because the Starliner aircraft was uncrewed for this test, it was relying on automated controls to reach the ISS.
“The challenge had to do with automation, the automation was not working according to plan,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “Had our crew been aboard, the crew would have been safe. And we might have been docking with the International Space Station tomorrow had crew been inside.”
A backup command to take over the timer was unsuccessful because the spacecraft was moving between satellites at the time the signal was sent.
“The spacecraft currently is in a safe and stable configuration,” Boeing said in a statement. “Flight controllers have completed a successful initial burn and are assessing next steps. Boeing and NASA are working together to review options for the test and mission opportunities available while the Starliner remains in orbit.”
NASA is working on this mission that will likely compete with other commercial space travel programs like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.
The U.S. has not launched spacecraft from home turf since 2011 when its shuttles were retired.
"Since then, NASA astronauts have traveled to and from the space station via Kazakhstan, courtesy of the Russian Space Agency," The AP reported. "The Soyuz rides have cost NASA up to $86 million apiece."
NASA and Boeing will continue to investigate the issue. Both parties were adamant that the launch should still be considered a success and will not delay plans for setting up an American space launch point.