Enlarge /. A shelter tent is set up over Starliner after it returns to Earth in December.
NASA / Bill Ingalls
After considering all of the problems that arose during a test flight of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft in December this week, NASA chief human spaceflight Doug Loverro said on Friday that he had decided to escalate the incident .
That is why he called Starliner's mission, in which the spaceship flew a shortened profile and did not try to dock at the International Space Station, as "close-up discussion with high visibility". This relatively rare name for NASA's manned space program does not correspond to the "missed mission", but is quite rare. It was last used by NASA after a spacewalk in 2013 when the water in the helmet of astronaut Luca Parmitano was dangerously pooled.
During a conference call with reporters asked to explain why he did this, Loverro said, "We could have lost a spaceship twice during this mission."
In this context, Loverro referred to two software bugs that occurred during the two-day flight. The first problem occurred when Starliner recorded the wrong "elapsed mission time" from its Atlas V launch vehicle – it was supposed to record that time during the final phase of the countdown, but instead retrieve data 11 hours ahead of the correct time. This resulted in delayed pressure to reach orbit. The second bug, which was caught and remedied by the atmosphere a few hours before the vehicle returned to Earth, was due to a software mapping bug that would have caused the Starliner service module engines to be misfire.
NASA and Boeing officials held a conference call on Friday to announce the completion of a report by an independent review team that was set up after the flight in December. These reviewers gave NASA and Boeing 60 recommendations for corrective actions ranging from solving these software problems to finding others that may still be in the spacecraft's flight code. The investigation team is also addressing a problem that resulted in multiple communications interruptions between the ground and spaceship in key moments of the flight.
Corrective Action Plan
By declaring the Starliner mishap a "close call", Loverro officially opened a process in which the space agency's security bureau will investigate the organizational elements that may have led to the incident – probably focusing on why NASA found the errors in Starliners Flight did not detect software.
According to Loverro, there are no decisions about when Starliner will return to the flight or whether Boeing will have to fly another unscrewed demonstration test flight before NASA astronauts fly with Starliner. The next step, he said, is that Boeing will draw up a "corrective action plan" to implement the results of the review team, which will include a schedule. NASA will evaluate this plan and may then be able to decide whether another test flight is required.
Boeing's Jim Chilton, vice president and general manager of Space and Launch, said the company is ready to continue working with NASA to ensure Starliner is safe for crew flights. And if that includes paying for an additional orbital flight test (OFT), Chilton said: "Boeing is ready to repeat an OFT. "
As part of its first review, NASA also examined whether Boeing's problems with Starliner would affect other areas of human space travel. So far, Loverro says, there doesn't appear to be any impact on the other company, which is working with NASA as part of the SpaceX commercial crew program. NASA appears to be satisfied with the company's end-to-end software testing processes. SpaceX is preparing for a crew flight of its kite spacecraft to the International Space Station, probably sometime in May.