Boeing’s Starliner looks like it won’t fly again for a long time

Just before Christmas, Boeing and NASA launched the CST-100 Starliner from Florida. However, the spacecraft stalled while on the way to the International Space Station. Now, it looks like the issues are greater than expected.

Starliner Orbit
There were high hopes for Boeing’s Starliner before the recent testing. Photo: Boeing

Aborted mission

Following the Starliner Orbital Flight Test (OFT) attempt, it was well reported that a software problem impacted the mission. Starliner captured the incorrect “mission elapsed time” from its Atlas V launch vehicle.

It was supposed to pick up this time during the terminal phase of the countdown. However, it registered data 11 hours off the right time. However, Ars Technica reports on a second software error, which was noticed a few hours after the craft was due to return through Earth’s atmosphere.

Jim Chilton, Senior Vice President of Space and Launch at Boeing, explained that a mapping error meant that a set of thrusters on the vehicle’s service module would have fired in the wrong way.

Moreover, after the module separated from the capsule, it would not have performed a burn to put the craft into a disposal burn. It would have instead fired in a way to cause the module and crew capsule to collide.

Along with these issues, NASA also shared information on another issue that the Starliner faced. There was Intermittent Space-to-Ground (S/G) forward link issue. This impeded the flight control team’s ability to command and control the vehicle.

Starliner Landing
Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army officials tended to the spacecraft after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, on December 22. Photo: NASA

Critical issues

NASA and Boeing formed a joint investigation team to look into these problems. According to a statement by NASA, the team is currently analyzing whether the issues were indicative of weak internal software processes or failure in applying the correct processes.

Altogether, the two critical software defects were not detected ahead of  the flight despite multiple safeguards. Thankfully, intervention from the ground staff prevented the loss of the vehicle in both situations.

The space exploration agency summarized that breakdowns in the design and code phase inserted the original defects. However, it states that there was no absolute reason for how the defects made their way onboard.

“There was no simple cause of the two software defects making it into flight. Software defects, particularly in complex spacecraft code, are not unexpected,” NASA shared in its statement.

“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.”

Starliner atmosphere
It could be a long time before the spacecraft makes its way back through the atmosphere again. Photo: Boeing

Work to be done

NASA went on the state that the team has already identified a set of 11 corrective actions, which will be conducted as a priority. Thereafter, additional corrections will be made after the team completes further work.

Nonetheless, it looks like a long journey ahead for NASA and Boeing as they try and solve their problems before testing Starliner again. The craft’s software holds over a million lines of code, which has to be reviewed.

Professionals will have to check for errors in all of this information. It’s not known whether there were only two errors or hundreds of them. Therefore, a lot of verification needs to be done before Starliner lifts off again.

It has been a tough few years for Boeing across all of its operations. It is losing ground to SpaceX when it comes to the space race and several crashes on its commercial aircraft have forced it to spend billions to counter against the damage.

Altogether, the manufacturer will be hoping to overturn its luck as this decade gets underway.

What are your thoughts on the issues that the CST-100 Starliner is facing? Let us know what you think in the comment section.

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