Boeing astronaut capsule could have been destroyed due to software issue, NASA says

Software fix issued about 2 hours prior to landing in New Mexico

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 photo made available by NASA, Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel work around the Boeing Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in White Sands, N.M. On Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, NASA said defective software could have doomed the crew capsule during its first test flight that ended up being cut short. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP) (Bill Ingalls, NASA/Bill Ingalls)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Problems with the software on Boeing’s Starliner astronaut capsule could have caused the spacecraft’s first space flight to end in a total loss if it wasn’t for intervention on the ground just hours before the spacecraft landed back on Earth, according to findings from the initial investigation into the mishap.

Despite multiple safeguards prior to launch, the errors with the software were not detected, NASA officials said Friday.

During the test flight, an unpiloted Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule was meant to lift off from Cape Canaveral then dock with the International Space Station before returning to Earth, however, minutes after launch, the spacecraft missed a maneuver that would have sent it on its way to catch up to the ISS. The problem meant the spaceflight ended 48 hours after it started instead of after a week-long stay at the ISS.

NASA astronauts have not launched from home soil since 2011. Instead, the U.S. relies on Russian rockets to get its crew to the space station. NASA has paid Boeing and SpaceX a combined $6.4 billion to develop spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the space station. That program, known as commercial crew, is years behind schedule.

The Boeing Starliner Orbital Test Flight on Dec. 20 was part of the process to certify the spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts. SpaceX previously launched and landed its astronaut capsule, called the Crew Dragon, on a similar test flight to the ISS.

On Friday, NASA released the primary results of an independent review into Boeing’s December orbital test flight, saying three main issues were discovered.

  1. The capsule’s automatic timer was off by 11 hours, preventing Starliner from making the orbital insertion burn to meet up with the space station.
  2. A separate software problem was found that would have interfered with the separation of the service module before it landed in New Mexico if Boeing ground controllers had not stepped in to correct the issue hours before re-entry.
  3. An intermittent space-to-ground communication made it hard for space flight controllers to be able to send commands and control the spacecraft.

NASA said in a news release that if ground controllers had not intervened to fix the problems as they arose during the space flight and re-entry, Starliner could have been destroyed.

If not detected before re-entry, a software problem would have impeded the landing in New Mexico by causing the thrusters to fire unevenly, meaning the crew module could have “bumped” into the service module before touchdown.

In a call with reporters Friday, Boeing officials said the issue that would have affected landing was detected the night of Dec. 21 and a software fix was issued about two hours before the spacecraft landed in the desert on the morning of Dec. 22.

While NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said “We really don’t know what would have happened,” if that issue had not been corrected with a software patch Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing Space and Launch said “Nothing good can come from those two spacecraft bumping into each other.”

NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders said in a call with reporters Friday that it’s unclear why the issues weren’t caught prior to launch, despite multiple checks.

“Why wasn’t it caught in our testing? It’s something that both Boeing and NASA will have to work on," Lueders said.

Bridenstine said Friday it is still too early to determine if Boeing will need to conduct another uncrewed orbital test flight.

“We’re still in the middle of the investigation,” he said.

NASA officials have ordered the review team to conduct a more in-depth analysis as to why these problems occurred, including whether the issues were indicative of a weak internal software process or a failure of applying those procedures. That review should be completed this month, according to the space agency.

NASA is also independently reviewing the data collected during the flight test.