Illustration for article titled Boeing Proves Autonomy Is Hard In Space, Too
Photo: Getty

Boeing has had a pretty rough year and its latest venture into space has not helped. The Starliner spacecraft launched yesterday on a test mission to rendezvous with the International Space Station, but an error in the craft’s timing system caused it to flub the orbital insertion burn. By the time they were able to get signals up to do the correct insertion burn, it was too late. Boeing was able to partially correct the trajectory to get it into a stable orbit.

The craft had been designed to carry people, but this one was unmanned, containing only a mannequin and a few thousand pounds of supplies. Had this test been successful, the next flight would have carried three astronauts. Mike Fincke, one of those astronauts said in a press conference that had the crew been on board “We’d like to think... we could have given the flight control team more options on what to do in this situation.”

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Illustration for article titled Boeing Proves Autonomy Is Hard In Space, Too
Photo: Getty

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that it’s too early to know if the next Starliner launch will have humans on board. Both NASA and Boeing believe that, had astronauts been on board this flight, they would have been safe.

“What we were trying to do is make sure we could do this entire mission end-to-end completely automated and that didn’t work,” said Bridenstine.

The company said there might still be some useful testing that can be done. “There’s probably an opportunity to practice spacecraft guidance and control, just not at the same proximity to the station that we previously thought,” Boeing told reporters.

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If all goes as expected from here on out, the spacecraft will be parachuting back to earth this weekend, one week ahead of schedule.

SpaceX completed its crewed test mission to the ISS in March but had its own setback a few weeks later when one of its crew capsules exploded during an engine test.

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Making space ships is hard.

Boeing has had quite a few fuckups recently, with two 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people, grounded the planes around the world, and halted production. The mishandling of those disasters, the 777X delays, and yesterday’s not-entirely-successful Starliner test have some wondering if Dennis Muilenburg’s days as CEO are numbered.

Matt Brown is an automotive engineer, writer, and builder of unconventional things. Mostly vehicles.

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