Boeing’s new Starliner capsule went off course after launch and will not dock with the International Space Station during its first test flight.
It was supposed to be a crucial dress rehearsal for next year’s inaugural launch with astronauts.
The blastoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, went flawlessly as the Atlas V rocket lifted off with the Starliner capsule, but half an hour into the flight, Boeing reported that the capsule did not get into the right orbit to reach the space station.
The capsule is still in space and will be brought back to Earth, landing in New Mexico as early as Sunday.
The United Launch Alliance rocket had blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and was visible for at least five minutes, its white contrail a brilliant contrast against the dark sky.
Thousands of spectators jammed the area to see Starliner’s premiere flight.
This was Boeing’s chance to catch up with SpaceX, Nasa’s other commercial crew provider that successfully completed a similar demonstration last March.
SpaceX has one last hurdle — a launch abort test — before carrying two Nasa astronauts in its Dragon capsule, possibly by spring.
A successful Starliner demo could have seen Boeing launching astronauts by summer.
The US needs competition like this, Nasa chief Bridenstine said on Thursday, to drive down launch costs, boost innovation and open space up to more people.
“We’re moving into a new era,” he said.
The Starliner was carrying Christmas treats and presents intended for the six space station residents, and hundreds of tree seeds similar to those that flew to the moon on Apollo 14.