During the December test flight, the Starliner crew capsule could be completely destroyed

Manned Boeing CST-100 Starliner ship after landing in White Sands, New Mexico in December 2019. Source: NASA / Bill Ingalls

During the quarterly meeting of the Security Advisory Panel, NASA provided relevant information about the December test flight of the Boeing Starliner crew capsule. NASA representatives admitted that a catastrophe would have occurred if during the flight, when the capsule was already in orbit, the software fault had not been discovered and removed.

Boeing sent Starliner on the first test flight on December 20, 2019. There was no crew aboard the capsule. As part of the mission, Starliner was to demonstrate the mooring process to the International Space Station (ISS) and then return to Earth. A software error during launch prevented Starliner from firing the main engines at the right time, causing the ship to enter orbit. Ultimately, Starliner did not reach the ISS and had to land much faster than expected.

A second software problem was identified during the test after Starliner's startup.

If the fault was not rectified, it could interfere with the separation of the service module (SM) from the Starliner capsule.

Although the anomaly could be corrected during the flight, if we did not detect it, we would have witnessed unnecessary firing of engines during entering the atmosphere, which in turn would lead to uncontrolled rotation of the ship. This could completely destroy the capsule, "said Paul Hill, former flight director at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The December Starliner test was discontinued after a software fault led to the ship entering incorrect orbit.

This in turn meant that the engines installed on board the service module, which provides Starliner with power for most of the mission, had to run longer than expected. As a result, the capsule did not have enough fuel to moor to the International Space Station, which was a key element of the test flight.

Paul Hill also announced for the first time about the second software and engine issue described here.

Already earlier information, which reported among others. Ars Technica's website indicated that Boeing had removed the latter software bug just two hours before Starliner's entry into Earth's atmosphere.

If the fault could not be rectified, the engines would not start correctly and the capsule would be destroyed.

The comments presented by Hill indicate the seriousness of the situation. The Security Panel recommended several Boeing checks. This time, however, the recommendations indicate the need to investigate not only the cause of the failures that occurred during this particular flight, but also the need to examine all processes of integration and testing of software in Boeing. Only after a comprehensive audit in the company will NASA decide whether Starliner will have to perform a second, unmanned test flight into orbit before the first manned flight.

During the December test flight, the Starliner crew capsule could be completely destroyed


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