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Boeing’s Starliner space capsule suffered a second software glitch during December test flight

The problem could have caused a ‘catastrophic’ failure but was fixed in flight. But NASA now will require the company to undergo a full safety review.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule before its launch in December. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

NASA has decided to reverse itself and conduct a full safety review of Boeing, one of its longest and most trusted contractors, NASA safety officials said Thursday.

News of the safety review came as it was revealed that a December test flight that failed to make it to the International Space Station went even more awry than previously known.

NASA safety officials said Boeing’s Starliner capsule suffered a second software problem, forcing Boeing officials to scramble to fix what could have caused what one official called a “catastrophic spacecraft failure.”

As the capsule, which had no astronauts on board, was getting ready to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and land, operators on the ground noticed a software problem that would have fired the wrong thrusters during separation of what’s known as the service module from the crew module, according to officials with knowledge of the mishap.

The concern was that if the wrong thrusters fired, there was a possibility the service module could collide with the crew module, potentially sending it off course. During a public meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Paul Hill, a former director of NASA mission operations for human spaceflight, said that could have had dire consequences.

Possible software issue forces NASA to cancel Boeing Starliner’s attempt to dock with space station

“While this anomaly was corrected in flight, if it had gone uncorrected, it would have led to erroneous thruster firings and uncontrolled motion during [service module] separation for de-orbit, with the potential for a catastrophic spacecraft failure,” Hill said, according to SpaceNews.

The Starliner’s mission to travel to the International Space Station already had been canceled mid-flight when an earlier glitch kept the spacecraft’s rocket engine from firing in time to put it on a path to rendezvous with the station.

Members of the safety review team said at their quarterly meeting Thursday that NASA had agreed to perform a full-fledged review of Boeing’s safety culture. The decision had been made before the December test, said a senior NASA official who was not authorized to comment publicly. What prompted that decision was unknown.

In 2018, NASA ordered safety reviews of both Boeing and SpaceX, the other company hired by NASA to fly crews to the space station. The probes were prompted after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was seen taking a puff from a marijuana cigarette. But while SpaceX underwent a full review, Boeing underwent a far more limited audit, The Post reported last year.

At the time, NASA officials said they had a lot of confidence in Boeing and saw SpaceX as a relatively untested newcomer that some thought should not be trusted with the lives of NASA’s astronauts. “Boeing didn’t do anything to trigger a deeper dive,” one senior official said at the time. SpaceX charged NASA $5 million to perform its assessment; officials said Boeing was asking for as much as $25 million.

Boeing faced only ‘limited’ safety review from NASA, while SpaceX got a full examination

SpaceX has had its share of problems, including a spacecraft that exploded during a test of its abort engines last year. But it also successfully completed its test flight to the space station without astronauts. Last month, its test of its in-flight abort system was also deemed a success, and the company now seems poised to fly crews to the space station within months.

“The panel’s assessment of the status of SpaceX is that NASA is at a point where there is not a question of whether they will be flying crew in the near term, but when, and under what risk conditions,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel, according to SpaceNews.

Boeing’s recent woes forced NASA to rethink its decision to give it a pass on the full safety review. The space agency is also now planning a more invasive investigation of the company, which has been reeling since crashes of two of its 737 Max airplanes killed 346 people.

In a statement, Boeing said the “error in the software would have resulted in an incorrect thruster separation and disposal burn. What would have resulted from that is unclear.”

After it discovered the computer problem during its December test flight, Boeing sent a software patch to the spacecraft that fixed it. The service module separated cleanly and the crew module touched down in what officials later called “an absolute bull’s eye” landing two days later.

NASA and Boeing are investigating and still have offered no explanation for the other software problem that forced the company to cancel its planned mission to the space station shortly after liftoff and bring the spacecraft back to Earth a week ahead of schedule. Shortly after the spacecraft was hoisted into orbit on Dec. 21, the thrusters that should have propelled the spacecraft on a trajectory to the International Space Station failed to fire. Officials blamed the problem on the spacecraft’s internal clock, which was off by 11 hours.

In its statement, Boeing said members of the independent review team think “they found [the] root cause and provided a number of recommendations and corrective actions.” The company did not say what the cause or remedies were.

After mishap with Boeing spacecraft, NASA faces a dilemma

NASA has since launched two investigations. One, along with Boeing, would examine what caused the timing issue and figure out how to fix it before flying people on the Starliner for the first time.

In the second, NASA is looking into whether it needs to require Boeing to redo the test flight without astronauts before allowing the company to fly NASA astronauts. Those investigations are ongoing, officials have said.

In case it does have to re-fly the mission, Boeing has set aside $410 million to do so and to fix any issues that arise during the investigations.