Boeing’s Space department seems to have made a new blunder regarding the Starliner capsule. The capsule’s first test mission, the Orbital Flight Test (or OFT), was doomed from the start because of a timer failure. However, a new error has been discovered in the code of the capsule. The newly discovered problem in the capsule’s software would have resulted in catastrophic results for every single onboard astronaut.
The OFT was meant to be one final step in Boeing’s development of the Starliner, a newly developed capsule under the Commercial Crew Development contract. NASA issued the contract, and it aimed to minimize development costs via private investment and development.
The contract includes two space transportation vehicles: one is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and the other is the Starliner, as mentioned earlier. NASA did this with hopes of providing redundancy both regarding flight operations and development.
SpaceX’s success & Starliner’s struggle
SpaceX has recently obtained great success with both the orbital flight test (known as the Demo-1), which was SpaceX’s version of the OFT and the in-flight abort test alike, which proved that the vehicle is safe and flight-ready.
Even though the Crew Dragon was delayed by a failure that led to an explosion, which ultimately obliterated the Demo-1 capsule. Thankfully, nobody was injured. SpaceX began studying the issue. Their engineers believe that a leaky valve was the leading cause of the explosion.
The Starliner, on the other hand, has run into similar issues but with little trace of success, unfortunately. The abort test was successful, but it still had a parachute fail on the way down. An examination of the spacecraft’s service module revealed a leak of the module’s toxic fuel, furthermore delaying the OFT by a few months.
However, the newly discovered blunder is far more dangerous, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made it very clear. Bridenstine hosted a teleconference in the interest of transparency so that the Starliner’s “lots of anomalies” are clarified.
NASA’s point of view
NASA seems to be more concerned about the culture of Boeing’s software development. Doug Loverro, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight section, made it clear that the anomalies were likely symptoms of a more significant problem. That is very concerning when you look at Boeing’s horrible software failures with its Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) on the Boeing 737, which led to the death of over 340 people on two individual flights. Of course, NASA keeps this in mind.
The latest anomaly belongs to the Starliner’s Service Module disposal sequence. The sequence requires several thrusters fire to move away from the crew module before the reentry procedure.
The issue was detected when a software check was performed following the orbital insertion malfunction of the Starliner. It was discovered that the service module’s code was sub-par, which could have produced a collision with the crew module.
It seems like the reason why the code was sub-par is the difference of whether the crew module was attached to the service module or not. Different states require different “valve mapping.”
However, the service module’s thruster would have behaved as if the crew module was still attached, which would be fatal to the mission, and especially to the astronauts.