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NASA panel recommends Boeing software process reviews after revealing second Starliner issue

Darrell Etherington

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) is recommending that Boeing's software testing processes undergo a review, following the discovery of another problem with the on-board system that was in operation during the CST-100 Starliner uncrewed Space Station docking test launch in December. Starliner never made it to the Space Station as planned during that launch, due to a mission timer error that resulted in the capsule burning too much fuel too early in the flight.

During their meeting on Thursday, the ASAP group revealed that there was a second software "anomaly" detected during the mission, which was corrected while the capsule was in flight, Space News reports. Had the issue not been noticed and corrected, the result would've been misfired thrusters that could've ultimately led to a "catastrophic spacecraft failure," per panel member Paul Hill via Space News.

Both Boeing and NASA are currently investigating the issues that occurred during the test mission. Both partners also stressed that the launch, which did result in a successful Starliner re-entry and landing in White Sands, N.M., accomplished a number of planned tests despite not making it to the ISS.

At the time, they also pointed out that the error with the mission timer would not have resulted in any danger to any astronauts on board. This newly disclosed error sounds like it may have been more severe, without correction, and it was fixed just two hours prior to the capsule's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Accordingly, the panel would like to see a review of Boeing's systems engineering, software integration and verification testing, and that doing so should precede a decision about whether or not to go ahead with either another uncrewed launch, or move ahead to the crewed test flight, which would've been the next step had everything gone to plan on the December launch.

NASA has already decided to go ahead and conduct an "organizational safety assessment," the panel said, which it has already conducted for fellow commercial crew program participant SpaceX last year.

Speaking of SpaceX, the panel also shared that its program is "at a point where there is not a question of whether they will be flying crew in the near term, but when," which does sound promising for their goal. Separately, a report on the Commercial Crew Program issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this week revealed that SpaceX is actually ahead of its current schedule on delivering the Crew Dragon capsule for the first operational crew mission.

Boeing provided TechCrunch the following statement regarding the ASAP's statements at the meeting on Thursday:

We accept and appreciate the recommendations of the jointly led NASA-Boeing Independent Review Team (IRT) as well as suggestions from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel following Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT). Their insights are invaluable to the Commercial Crew Program and we will work with NASA to comprehensively apply their recommendations.

  • Regarding the Mission Elapsed Timer anomaly, the IRT believes they found root cause and provided a number of recommendations and corrective actions.
  • The IRT also investigated a valve mapping software issue, which was diagnosed and fixed in flight. That error in the software would have resulted in an incorrect thruster separation and disposal burn. What would have resulted from that is unclear.
  • The IRT is also making significant progress on understanding the command dropouts encountered during the mission and is further investigating methods to make the Starliner communications system more robust on future missions.

We are already working on many of the recommended fixes including re-verifying flight software code.

Our next task is to build a plan that incorporates IRT recommendations, NASA’s Organizational Safety Assessment (OSA) and any other oversight NASA chooses after considering IRT findings. Once NASA approves that plan, we will be able to better estimate timelines for the completion of all tasks. It remains too soon to speculate about next flight dates.