ORLANDO, Fla. – Prior to launching its astronaut spacecraft on its first flight, Boeing didn’t conduct a testing procedure that might have caught the problems that arose during that first mission, a former NASA safety panel member told the Orlando Sentinel.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner launched from Cape Canaveral in December without astronauts on board. The spacecraft was bound for the International Space Station to test its launch, docking and landing systems but the spacecraft was forced to return to Earth 48 hours after launch when it missed a maneuver to catch up to the space station.
NASA and Boeing are currently investigating the cause of the timing error, among several other issues revealed during that flight.
NASA released the preliminary results of an independent review earlier this month, saying three main issues were discovered, including two software errors and an intermittent space-to-ground communication delay that made it hard for spaceflight controllers to send commands and control the spacecraft.
According to the Sentinel’s source, Christopher Saindon, a former member of NASA’s safety advisory panel, Boeing did not perform a full, end-to-end integrated test of Starliner. Saindon said that test, which simulates every move of the mission, could have possibly caught some of the issues ahead of the ill-fated spaceflight.
“That was somewhat surprising to us on the panel,” Saindon told the Sentinel. “There were certainly gaps in the test protocol.”
NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders said in a call with reporters earlier this month that it’s unclear why the issues weren’t caught prior to launch, despite multiple checks.
NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to build human-rated spacecraft to fly U.S. astronauts as part of the Commercial Crew program. Both companies have experienced delays as they work to certify their capsules to fly crew to the ISS and bring them home safely.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is slated to launch with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley as soon as this spring, marking the first time Americans have launched from U.S. soil since 2011.
Elon Musk’s company successfully launched Crew Dragon -- without astronauts -- to the ISS and brought it home for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown last March.
It’s still unclear if Boeing will have to repeat its orbital test flight before flying astronauts.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the investigation would be complete sometime this month.