Boeing ‘Almost Lost’ Starliner to Software Glitches


Boeing came close to losing its Starliner crew capsule during the abortive test flight in December in which the spacecraft failed to reach the correct orbit. A software-related timing issue caused that problem but another software glitch almost sent the vehicle tumbling out of control after it had reached orbit. Had engineers not caught the second error while the Starliner was in orbit, it would have fired the wrong thrusters as part of the re-entry sequence and triggered a “catastrophic” loss of control, a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel revealed on Thursday. Once the issue was fixed, Boeing was able to bring the spacecraft to a soft landing in the New Mexico desert.

“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,” panel member Paul Hill reported in the meeting. Boeing was supposed to start manned flights after one test flight but it says its now budgeting $410 million for a redo of the December miscue. The budget also includes the cost to troubleshoot the problems and fix them.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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    • Get to the space station, and back, without incident. Seems like a reasonable requirement before stuffing a crew aboard.

      • We did all the basic science work with Skylab. I was just curious why low earth orbit was a scientific goal almost 50 years later.

        • The people who did Skylab are long gone. The science is there but people involved now may not have the info or care to find it. And besides that, computers didn’t exist in the slide rule era as it does now, translating flight laws into billions of lines of instructions may be giving programmers headaches with fewer people cross checking each other and not running simulations. More money bigger budget may mean bigger mistakes. We all learned from Apollo 13 when the oxygen tank was stirred…….. and figured out how to navigate on the fly while paying homage to Rube Goldberg when mismatched components were created to scrub carbon monoxide from crew exhalation. Heady days back then.

  1. Software glitch could cause loss of the vehicle? Say it ain’t so! Good thing that will never happen with autonomous air taxis.

    • After reading the article, I had the same reaction as Chris. Maybe Boeing is just the media whipping boy this year. Guess when you’re down everyone wants to get their kicks in? “Bully News”.