Science

Boeing's botched Starliner test flirted with 'catastrophic' failure, NASA finds

Boeing narrowly missed a "catastrophic failure" during its December flight test of an unmanned space taxi that was cut short by an unrelated problem, a NASA safety review panel has found.

Software bug that could have doomed spacecraft unrelated to timer error that put it in wrong orbit

A rocket carrying the Boeing Starliner crew capsule lifts off on an orbital flight test to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral Air Force station on Dec. 20, 2019. Not only did the capsule end up in the wrong orbit, but it narrowly missed a 'catastrophic' failure, a NASA safety panel has found. (Terry Renna/The Associated Press)

Boeing narrowly missed a "catastrophic failure" during its December flight test of an unmanned space taxi that was cut short by an unrelated problem, a NASA safety review panel said Thursday. It recommended that the agency examine Boeing's software verification process before letting it fly humans to space.

The newly revealed software bug, which Boeing said was fixed while the CST-100 Starliner was still in orbit, could have "led to erroneous thruster firings" that could have resulted in "a catastrophic spacecraft failure," panel member Paul Hill said.

Boeing and NASA officials had zeroed in on an unrelated glitch with the spacecraft's automated timer hours after the spacecraft failed to reach its intended orbit 30 minutes into flight. The timer malfunction forced the craft to scrub its rendezvous with the International Space Station, and the Starliner returned to Earth a week early.

NASA must still decide whether to make Boeing repeat the unmanned docking test before the spacecraft can carry astronauts. Boeing recorded a $410 million US charge last month to cover that possibility.

Boeing's software testing needs scrutiny, panel says

"The panel has a larger concern with the rigour of Boeing's verification processes," said Hill, a former NASA flight director who now serves on the panel that advises NASA on safety issues. Speaking during the panel's quarterly meeting on Thursday, Hill said the agency should go beyond merely correcting the cause of the anomalies and scrutinize Boeing's entire software testing processes.

The panel has a larger concern with the rigour of Boeing's verification processes.- Paul Hill, adviser on NASA safety panel

 

"We are already working on many of the recommended fixes including re-verifying flight software code," Boeing said in a statement, adding that it believes its engineers have found the cause of one of the software issues and have recommended to NASA corrective actions.

Boeing and Elon Musk's rival SpaceX company are building separate space taxis to ferry astronauts to the space station under NASA's effort to revive its human space-flight program.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now