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NASA Safety Panel Raises Software, Safety Concerns Of Boeing's Starliner Capsule

Boeing's Starliner capsule after an abbreviated orbital mission that failed to reach the International Space Station. Photo: NASA
Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel work around the Boeing Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in White Sands, N.M., Sunday.

A NASA safety panel says Boeing has a lot of work to do before launching humans to the International Space Station on its new Starliner space capsule. The recommendations come after an uncrewed test mission failed to reach its intended orbit.

A software anomaly cut the mission short, causing engines on the capsule to fire incorrectly and use up fuel. The capsule landed safely back on Earth but did not rendezvous and dock with the station.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said a second software error was uncovered -- one that could have led to a "catastrophic failure" -- and recommends a broad review of Boeing's software and safety practices.

"As a result, the panel recommends NASA pursue not just root cause [investigations] of these specific flight software anomalies, but also a Boeing assessment of and corrective actions for Boeing's flight software integration and testing procedures," said ASAP panel member Paul Hill.

“Boeing and NASA are still evaluating root cause and corrective actions for these software anomalies. But these specific anomalies are beyond the specific anomalies, the panel has larger concern with the rigors of Boeing’s verification processes.”

The company was planning to launch a crewed mission next, but NASA is still deciding whether another uncrewed mission is required.

"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," said Boeing in a statement. "We are already working on many of the recommended fixes including re-verifying flight software code."

Meanwhile, SpaceX is getting ready to launch humans to the space station as early as this spring after a successful uncrewed test mission last year.

Brendan Byrne is Central Florida Public Media's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing the organization's internship program. Byrne also hosts Central Florida Public Media's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration, and the weekly news roundup podcast "The Wrap."