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NASA Completes Investigations Into Boeing's Failed Starliner Mission

Boeing's Starliner capsule after an abbreviated orbital mission that failed to reach the International Space Station. Photo: NASA
Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel work around the Boeing Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in White Sands, N.M., Sunday.

NASA has completed a series of investigations into the first flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft which failed to make it to the International Space Station on a test flight late last year.

NASA and Boeing wrapped up a series of investigations into the failed mission, focusing on software and communication issues discovered during the flight. A broader investigation called a High Visibility Close Call Review also examined the leadership and organization of Boeing and how it works with NASA’s Commercial Crew office.

NASA said a lack of agency oversight was partly to blame for the failure “I would say when we went back and looked at our culture and the way we were approaching software development Boeing," said Commercial Crew manager Steve Stitch. "Perhaps we didn't have as many people as embedded in that process as we should have.”

The Commercial Crew Program relies on private companies to launch astronauts to the International Space Station, ending a nearly decade long reliance on the Russian space agency for rides to the station. SpaceX and Boeing were awarded contracts to design and develop new space vehicles to launch astronauts.

NASA doesn't own the vehicles; instead, it pays for seats on the spacecraft. It's a different way to do business at NASA, said human spaceflight chief Kathy Leuders, which requires new ways to work with private companies. "If we're going to be operating in this model. We do need to change our assumptions and how we're working together."

The agency will also look at possible software and organizational issues with contractors throughout NASA, including a look at its next-generation moon rocket SLS.

Based on the Starliner investigations, NASA outlined over 80 recommendations for Boeing to improve the spacecraft. Work is underway to improve the software ahead of Starliner's next flight.

"We're sort of turning the page, a bit from the investigation phase  and moving into our hardware development," said Stitch. "The spacecraft is coming along very well at the Kennedy Space Center and we continue to update the software."

Boeing said it will launch another uncrewed test flight at no cost to NASA which could happen later this year, although no date has been confirmed.

Meanwhile, NASA’s other commercial partner SpaceX completed a successful crewed mission to the station, launching from Kennedy Space Center back in May. So far, NASA has been pleased with SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule which is currently docked to the International Space Station.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will remain on the station until next month before returning to Earth in the capsule, splashing down off the coast of Florida. 

Brendan Byrne is WMFE's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the WMFE newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing WMFE's internship program.

Byrne also hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.
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