Boeing's Starliner Spacecraft Faces New Safety Concerns After Discovery of Critical Software Issue

Nation/World
Boeing is launching an uncrewed test of its Starliner vehicle, which could soon start ferrying astronauts to and from space. (Credit: Boeing/NASA)

Boeing is launching an uncrewed test of its Starliner vehicle, which could soon start ferrying astronauts to and from space. (Credit: Boeing/NASA)

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is designed to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, encountered a second, previously undisclosed, software issue during a botched test flight in December.

The problem, revealed Thursday by a NASA safety adviser, adds to questions about when Boeing’s spacecraft will be ready for its first crewed flight, which is already years overdue.

The space agency said Friday that it plans to launch a full-scale safety review of the company’s work on Starliner, noting that there were “numerous instances where the Boeing software quality processes either should have or could have uncovered the defects.”

Starliner conducted an uncrewed test flight in December that was designed to show that the vehicle can safely dock with the International Space Station — but it didn’t go as planned. Starliner’s internal clock was off by 11 hours, which caused the spacecraft to misfire and stumble off course, NASA and Boeing officials told reporters at the time. Starliner was forced to make an early return to Earth.

Paul Hill, a member of NASA’s safety adviser panel, disclosed a separate software problem during a public meeting on Thursday, saying it could have caused a “catastrophic failure,” according to Space News. Hill said Boeing was able to identify and correct the error before it impacted Starliner’s behavior.

The error could have caused another misfire during the spacecraft’s return — specifically, when Starliner’s crew cabin separated from its service module. The service module is a cylindrical adapter that sits beneath the crew cabin and powers the capsule during flight, and it’s supposed to be jettisoned before landing.

Boeing acknowledged that software issue for the first time in a statement issued hours after Hill’s comments. The company says it “diagnosed and fixed” the problem during the uncrewed test mission, and it’s “unclear” how it may have impacted Starliner if left undetected.

The statement also says an ongoing investigation, carried out by Boeing and NASA, identified the root cause of Starliner’s off-kilter clock. But it’s still unclear what may have caused the second software error and why the issue was not disclosed earlier.

NASA said in a statement Friday that “there was no simple cause” for either issue, though the review team has already pinpointed “11 top-priority corrective actions” to address them.

Boeing and NASA are slated to host a joint press conference on Friday at 3:30 pm ET.

Boeing has worked for the past decade to prepare Starliner for crewed missions, ever since NASA retired its space shuttle program and asked the private sector to design spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

The space agency allocated $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX in 2014 for that task. Meanwhile, NASA has paid Russia to fly American astronauts to the space station aboard Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA initially hoped Boeing’s and SpaceX’s new vehicles would be up and running by 2017.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, however, completed its last major testing milestone in January. The company now appears poised to gain approval from NASA to begin flying astronauts in the coming weeks or months.

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