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Boeing’s passenger spacecraft actually suffered a second unknown software glitch during debut flight

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The Starliner could have had a catastrophic failure if it hadn’t been fixed

An artistic rendering of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.
Image: Boeing

Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft suffered a second major software bug during its debut flight to space in December — one that would have ended in a “catastrophic spacecraft failure” had it not been corrected. Fortunately, Boeing patched the issue before it became a problem, but the issue has safety experts worried about the company’s ongoing oversight of its space vehicles.

The spacecraft is Boeing’s new Starliner capsule, which is designed to take crews to and from the International Space Station for NASA. Boeing launched the Starliner on its first test flight on December 20th, without any people on board. The flight was meant to demonstrate the vehicle’s ability to get to space, dock with the International Space Station, and then return to Earth — all of the major things it will have to do when astronauts are inside.

But the mission didn’t go quite as planned. A software glitch during the launch prevented Starliner from firing its main engines at the right time, and the capsule got into the wrong orbit as a result. The vehicle never made it to the space station and had to land much earlier than expected. Now it seems that there was a second software glitch that Boeing caught while the Starliner was in orbit, according to NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), which had a public meeting on Thursday. The glitch would have caused the Starliner’s thrusters to needlessly fire while it descended to Earth, and the capsule would have moved uncontrollably. This could have caused the Starliner to bump into another piece of equipment that it shed during the descent.

NASA and Boeing disclosed the first software bug during the launch, but both organizations have kept quiet on this second issue until now. It was only made public during the safety panel’s meeting. In fact, after the Starliner landed in December, NASA assured the public that the landing had gone smoothly. “I can tell you this morning, we’re all very excited that a whole lot more things did go right — went very, very well as a matter of fact,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference after the Starliner’s premature landing. There was no mention of the second software issue during the press conference.

Boeing’s Starliner after landing in New Mexico, following its short flight.
Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA

In a statement on Thursday night, Boeing told The Verge that it “investigated a valve mapping software issue, which was diagnosed and fixed in flight.” The company says the “error in the software would have resulted in an incorrect thruster separation and disposal burn,” adding that “what would have resulted from that is unclear.”

On Friday, NASA finally released a statement of its own, detailing how both software bugs went unnoticed before the launch, “despite multiple safeguards.” Flight controllers on the ground had to intervene in both issues to prevent Boeing from losing the vehicle. “Software defects, particularly in complex spacecraft code, are not unexpected,” NASA wrote in a blog post on Friday. “However, there were numerous instances where the Boeing software quality processes either should have or could have uncovered the defects. Due to these breakdowns found in design, code and test of the software, they will require systemic corrective actions.”

Both Boeing and NASA are investigating the causes behind these software issues, and the space agency expects to have more definitive answers about what caused the glitches by the end of February. But the safety panel’s members are worried about Boeing’s testing processes, and they want NASA to look into the company’s protocols surrounding management and handling of Starliner. “The panel has a larger concern with the rigor of Boeing’s verification processes,” Paul Hill, a member of ASAP, said during the meeting.

NASA says it plans to perform an Organizational Safety Assessment of Boeing’s involvement in the Commercial Crew Program, the initiative to develop new private spacecraft to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. NASA has already conducted one of these for its other Commercial Crew provider, SpaceX. That review was triggered after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk smoked marijuana on Joe Rogan’s podcast, triggering concerns over the company’s workplace safety culture. At the time, Boeing also received an audit but only a limited one, according to The Washington Post. Now, it seems Boeing will get the full review.

In the meantime, NASA is still trying to figure out if it wants Boeing to repeat the uncrewed test flight of Starliner since the vehicle never reached the space station. It’s possible NASA may not require Boeing to do another test flight and will instead let the company proceed with putting astronauts on board the vehicle. In preparation for that decision, Boeing has reserved $410 million of its budget in case it needs to do the flight over. A decision on that will be made in the coming weeks.

Update February 6th, 7:40PM ET: Added statement from Boeing.

Update February 7th, 10:30AM ET: Updated with additional information provided by NASA.