Starliner’s debut orbital flight didn’t go according to plan last December, though it could have been a whole lot worse.
The capsule, which NASA and its maker, Boeing, hope will one day transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), suffered a software problem that prevented it from entering the correct orbit to take it to the ISS during the test flight on December 20, 2019.
But now it has emerged that a second software issue — discovered during the Starliner’s brief time in space — could have led to a “catastrophic failure” of the capsule.
The revelation came during a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, February 6, according to SpaceNews.
Engineers on the ground managed to avoid the loss of the spacecraft by fixing the issue soon after it was discovered.
“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 deorbit, with the potential for a catastrophic spacecraft failure,” said panel member Paul Hill, a former director of mission operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Hill added that considering that the spacecraft is intended to transport humans into space, “the panel recommends an even broader Boeing assessment of, and corrective actions in, Boeing’s [systems engineering and integration] processes and verification testing.”
Following the Starliner’s safe return to Earth after its short outing in December, Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s Space and Launch Division, revealed that it failed to reach the correct orbit because of a timing issue that resulted in the autonomous systems positioning the craft incorrectly.
There’s no word yet on when the Starliner will head skyward again, though Chilton said last week that he expected news on that front by the end of February.
SpaceX, the Elon Musk-led company that also hopes to deploy a spacecraft for crewed flights to and from the ISS. On that matter, Panel chair Patricia Sanders sounded pretty upbeat, saying that it’s no longer a case of if the Crew Dragon will be taking astronauts to the ISS in the near term, but when.
Although it has also had a number of serious issues to deal with, SpaceX has been thoroughly testing Crew Dragon’s critical systems and, unlike Boeing’s Starliner, the Crew Dragon has already made a successful round trip to the ISS in a test flight last year.
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