Boeing skipped a crucial software test on Starliner that could have identified an issue that caused the craft to enter the wrong orbit

  • The integration test may have identified a software glitch before launch
  • The bug forced Starliner to abort a mission to the ISS in December
  • NASA approved the flight despite Boeing failing to conduct the test 

Boeing’s failure to conduct a critical software test on its Starliner capsule may have contributed to a failed mission late last year.

According to NASA, the aerospace company didn’t perform a full ‘end-to-end’ integration test of the software designed to automate maneuvers after the craft is launched into space.

The Orlando Sentinel, who first highlighted NASA’s findings, reports that the exhaustive test may have prevented an aborted mission  

Boeing’s Starliner (rendered) may have been able to avoid having to abort a mission in December by undergoing a skipped software integration test 

‘It’s pretty exhaustive. You gotta do that,’ Christopher Saindon, a former member of NASA’s safety panel told the Sentinel. 

‘That was somewhat surprising to us on the panel. There were certainly gaps in the test protocol.’

In December, a glitch in the mission timing software caused Starliner to run to a different time than expected – it was 11 hours ahead – which triggered burns and control movements too early into its flight toward the International Space Station (ISS). 

As a result, the craft burned up fuel that it needed to get to the station and was forced to abort its mission and return to Earth. 

During that process of bringing the craft down NASA encountered another issue that could have resulted in Starliner colliding with its service module.

Luckily, Boeing was able to avert the collisions and safely land its craft back to Earth.

NASA also revealed this month that a second software glitch could have caused the wrong thrusters to fire upon re-entry and could have lead to a complete loss of the craft. 

As a result of the flaws, NASA has ordered a re-evaluation of all the software aboard Starliner which involves reassessing millions of lines of code according to The Sentinel.

Likely increasing scrutiny on the company are software issues related to its line of airplanes which caused multiple fatal crashes and the deaths of 346 people. 

From left to right: NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance Tory Bruno, and senior vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch Division Jim Chilton spoke to the media after a software glitch caused Boeing’s Starliner to launch into the wrong orbit

Boeing says that it followed all the procedures mandated by NASA prior to the Starliner’s botched flight and indeed the mission was cleared by the agency prior to launch.   

The Starliner test flight was intended as an important milestone in NASA’s plans to end its dependence on Russia to ferry US astronauts to and from the ISS

NASA has been forced to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport its astronauts since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011 after thirty years of service.

Both Boeing and Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX have been awarded multi-million dollar contracts with NASA, and will share the operation of flights to the ISS and back.

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