An uncrewed test flight of a Boeing spacecraft designed to carry NASA astronauts may have narrowly avoided catastrophic failure in December. A software error that could have resulted in loss of the spacecraft was discovered and fixed while the capsule, known as Starliner, was in orbit, and not long before it returned to Earth.
NASA and Boeing officials will discuss the issue during a telephone news conference at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time.
The problem, publicly reported Thursday during a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, is the second major software flaw to mar that mission, the first orbital flight of the spacecraft that Boeing built for NASA’s commercial crew program to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. During its trip to orbit, the spacecraft set its clock to the wrong time, causing it to deplete its propellant. A planned docking at the space station was called off, and the mission was cut short, to two days instead of eight.
The newly disclosed flaw, described by Boeing in a statement as “a valve mapping software issue,” would have bumbled Starliner’s preparations for re-entry. Had it not been corrected, the wrong thrusters would have fired as Starliner jettisoned its service module, the part of the spacecraft that carries systems that are not needed for the descent through the atmosphere.
“What would have resulted from that is unclear,” the Boeing statement said.
A NASA statement on Friday said both software errors “could have led to risk of spacecraft loss.”
The NASA and Boeing statements said an investigation team has found the cause of the clock problem flaw, but did not identify it. The team is still diagnosing communications problems with the capsule that also occurred during the flight.
The investigators are studying why the problems occurred, “including an analysis of whether the issues were indicative of weak internal software processes or failure in applying those processes,” the NASA statement said.
Starliner is one of two spacecraft that NASA is counting on to transport astronauts to and from the space station. Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, NASA astronauts have had to ride on Russia’s Soyuz rockets, trips that now cost more than $80 million per seat.
Instead of developing and operating its own successor to the shuttles, NASA turned to commercial companies, awarding contracts in 2014 to Boeing and SpaceX. The agency hoped that the spacecraft would be ready by the end of 2017.
Both companies have run into technical issues that delayed their schedules. In January, SpaceX successfully demonstrated the escape system on its capsule, Crew Dragon, that would ferry astronauts away from the rocket in the event of a failure during launch.
The December flight was to be the last major technical hurdle before Boeing would be cleared for taking astronauts on the next mission. The investigation is expected to last until the end of February, and NASA is also analyzing data gathered during the flight.
NASA could require Boeing to fly another uncrewed test, and the company took a $410 million charge against its earnings last quarter in case it has to pay for that.