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NASA still doesn’t know if it wants Boeing to perform another test flight of its passenger spacecraft

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The company is issuing 61 corrective actions in the meantime

An artistic rendering of NASA’s Starliner vehicle
Image: Boeing

NASA still doesn’t know if it wants Boeing to perform another test flight of its new passenger spacecraft without people on board — three months after the vehicle’s first test flight failed to go according to plan.

Today, NASA announced that it had finished an investigation into the botched debut flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, a new crew capsule designed to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA’s team identified 61 corrective actions that Boeing needs to take in order to fix all the issues the Starliner experienced during that first mission. But NASA officials will not say whether Boeing needs to repeat the flight or if the company’s next flight will have its first passengers on board.

“Quite frankly, right now, we don’t know,” Doug Loverro, NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight, said during a press conference on the investigation. “The findings and the corrective actions that Boeing has laid out — they have to now come back to NASA with a plan, how they’re going to go ahead and address all of those.”

No people were on board Starliner’s first flight on December 20th from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission was a test, meant to demonstrate that the vehicle can do what it’s supposed to do: safely dock with the International Space Station and then return to Earth. But that didn’t happen. A glitch with Starliner’s clock prevented the capsule from firing its main engines at the right time, and the vehicle got into the wrong orbit. As a result, Starliner never made it to the space station and had to come back to Earth earlier than planned. The capsule landed safely in the New Mexico desert using its parachutes two days after launch.

Boeing’s Starliner, after landing in the desert in December
(NASA/Bill Ingalls)

At the time of the mission, NASA and Boeing only detailed the software issue with Starliner’s clock. But in the months since, even more problems have come to light. On February 7th, Boeing and NASA admitted there was a second software glitch the Boeing team caught before the Starliner landed. If it hadn’t been corrected, it’s possible the Starliner could have fired its thrusters incorrectly during the descent to Earth, and it might have bumped into a piece of hardware it shed on the way down. NASA noted that both of these software bugs went unnoticed before the flight, even though there were “multiple safeguards” in place. Today, NASA claimed that the investigation team identified 49 gaps in software testing at Boeing.

It’s unclear exactly what Boeing’s 61 corrective actions entail, though NASA said they will be both “organizational and technical.” Loverro said there will be a discussion with the company on whether to make the list of corrective actions public. While Boeing implements these corrections, NASA plans to embed more of its own software experts within Boeing’s software team.

In the meantime, NASA has also decided to do another review at Boeing, one that will look at both the company’s and NASA’s organizational processes. This new review is in addition to a more rigorous safety review that NASA announced it would do with Boeing in February.

Back in 2018, Boeing and SpaceX (NASA’s other human spaceflight partner) had to undergo safety reviews, after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk smoked marijuana on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Boeing got away with a much smaller review at the time, but the Starliner flight prompted a more extensive look from NASA. This new review, according to Loverro, is meant to “make sure we truly do learn from this event, and that we know how to fix it and make sure it does not happen again.”

NASA did not say when to expect a decision on how Boeing will proceed with its next Starliner flight. Boeing claims the company is prepared to conduct a second uncrewed test flight if NASA wants and has set aside $410 million of its own budget if that’s the case. However, NASA officials have repeatedly argued that performing an uncrewed test flight was not an original requirement from the agency when it set up the Commercial Crew Program. NASA only made the decision to include the requirement after both companies suggested doing test missions. Loverro argued that there are other ways Boeing might be able to prove that its Starliner can perform in orbit — without the vehicle going to space.

“There are many things that we can do to provide the confidence that we can fly safely without docking,” Loverro said. “I’m not saying we will or we won’t. I’m saying that Boeing will come back to us with a plan. They will propose to us whether they intend to go ahead and do another flight to dock or if they propose to do other things that give us the confidence they can do it. And we’ll make sure that every decision we make is with crew safety and spacecraft safety in mind.”

As Boeing tries to move on from the Starliner debut, SpaceX is gearing up for the next test flight of its crew capsule, the Crew Dragon. After performing an uncrewed flight of the Crew Dragon one year ago, SpaceX is poised to finally put people on the spacecraft in the months ahead, though NASA has not formally announced a target date for the launch. If everything goes to plan, SpaceX will likely be the first commercial company to send astronauts to space for NASA.