About three months ago, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft failed to make its first flight as planned, and NASA has not yet known whether to allow another unmanned test flight of Boeing’s new manned spacecraft,media reported. On Friday, NASA announced that it had completed an investigation into Boeing’s first low-altitude flight, the CST-100 Starliner, which is designed to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
NASA’s team identified 61 corrective actions that Boeing needed to address all of the problems encountered by The Starliner during its first mission. But NASA officials did not say whether Boeing would need another test flight, or whether the company’s next flight would have the first passengers on board.
“Frankly, we don’t know yet,” Doug Loverro, NASA’s deputy director for human space flight, said at a news conference about the investigation. “Boeing has put forward its findings and corrective actions – they must now submit a new plan to NASA on how they will continue to address all of these issues. “
On December 20, the Starliner blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission was a test designed to prove whether the spacecraft could do what it was supposed to do: safely dock with the International Space Station and then return to Earth. But that didn’t happen as planned. The starliner’s on-board timer malfunctioned, preventing the spacecraft from launching its main engine at the right time, putting the spacecraft in the wrong orbit. As a result, the Starliner never reached the International Space Station and had to return to Earth earlier than planned. Two days after launch, the spacecraft landed safely in the New Mexico desert with a parachute.
In carrying out the mission, NASA and Boeing only detailed software problems with the Starliner on-board timers. But in the months since then, more problems have come to light. On February 7th Boeing and NASA admitted that the Boeing team had suffered a second software failure before the Starliner landed. If not corrected, the Starliner may not fire the thruster correctly during its descent to Earth and may have hit a piece of hardware that fell when it fell. NASA noted that even with “multiple protective measures,” the two software errors were not noticed before the flight. Now, NASA says the team found 49 vulnerabilities in Boeing’s software tests.
It is unclear what needs to be done in Boeing’s 61 corrective actions, although NASA said it would be “organizational and technical.” Loverro said it would discuss with the company whether to make the list of corrective actions public. While Boeing implements these corrections, NASA plans to include more of its own software experts in Boeing’s software team. AT THE SAME TIME, NASA HAS DECIDED TO CONDUCT ANOTHER REVIEW AT BOEING THAT WILL EXAMINE BOTH THE COMPANY’S AND NASA’S ORGANIZATIONAL PROCESSES. The new review complements NASA’s announcement in February that it will conduct more stringent safety reviews with Boeing.
Back in 2018, Boeing and SpaceX had to undergo safety reviews after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk smoked marijuana on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Boeing faced much less controversy at the time, but the launch of the Starliner prompted a broader NASA review. According to Loverro, the new review is designed to “ensure that we do learn from this incident, and that we know how to fix it and that it doesn’t happen again.” “
NASA did not say when it expected Boeing to make its next “Starliner” test flight. Boeing says it has set aside $410 million from its own budget if NASA agrees to conduct a second unmanned flight test. But NASA officials have repeatedly argued that the implementation of unmanned test flights was not the original requirement for the agency’s “commercial space mission program.” Both companies recommended a test mission before NASA decided to include the requirement. According to Loverro, Boeing has other ways to prove that its “starliner” can operate in orbit – without sending an aircraft into space.
“There are a lot of things we can do to make sure we can fly safely without stopping,” Loverro said. I’m not saying we will or will not. I mean, Boeing will give us a plan. They will advise us on whether we intend to continue another flight for docking, or whether to do something else that gives us confidence. And we’ll make sure that every decision we make takes crew safety into account. “
SpaceX is preparing for its next test flight as it attempts to move on from the Starliner’s debut. After an unmanned test flight a year ago, SpaceX is expected to eventually send people into space in the coming months, although NASA has not yet officially announced a target date for the launch. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX could be the first commercial company to send NASA astronauts into space.