A NASA investigation into Boeing’s latest space capsule revealed many software bugs that the agency said should have been found in internal testing – not unmanned spaceflight.


NASA said today it has found many problems with the new spacecraft it is building in partnership with the Boeing Company. The disclosure comes as the space agency hopes to resume launching US astronauts from US soil this year. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel joins me to discuss these developments in the new space race.

Welcome to the workshop.


CORNISH: What exactly is NASA doing with these commercial companies?

BRUMFIEL: American astronauts have therefore not launched aboard an American rocket since 2011. It was the last flight of the space shuttle. And so NASA contracted with two companies for replacements. One is SpaceX, the company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, and the other is Boeing.

CORNISH: Now, what will these new spaceships actually be used for?

BRUMFIEL: Well, they are basically used to transport the crew to and from the International Space Station. And I would say they look more like space taxis than any sort of ambitious spaceship. They are a bit retro. They are small capsules as you could see them in the days of Apollo. They’re not that big, but they’re really important to NASA because right now the only way for them to get the crew to and from the station is on Russian Soyuz rockets. Now both capsules have been tested in recent months – Boeing in December. And there were some issues with that Boeing test, and that’s what made the news today.

CORNISH: Talk about it a little more. What went wrong?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the short answer is that the Boeing capsule never made it to the space station, and that was due to an internal software error. Basically he got confused as to where he was and ended up in the wrong orbit. But now there is evidence that there is a second potentially much bigger problem with the software. Boeing only detected this problem when the spacecraft was already in space. And, basically, it could have knocked the spacecraft out of control, possibly even burning on re-entry. Engineers rushed to patch it. They downloaded the patch while it was in orbit, hours before it landed. And he came back safe and sound. Now, of course, there was no one on board. It was a test. But it still wasn’t a great look for Boeing.

CORNISH: Obviously, the background context here is the 737 Max. It was Boeing’s new plane, which had catastrophic software issues, right? Lives have been lost. Is it related?

BRUMFIEL: You know, I had the exact same thought. And so I spoke to Mary Lynne Dittmar. She is the head of the Deep Space Exploration Coalition. Here is what she had to say.

MARY LYNNE DITTMAR: I think it’s a really easy story. But I have to tell you that I worked for Boeing a long time ago, and they are almost different companies.

BRUMFIEL: And what she means by that is that the space division of the company and the commercial aircraft part of the company are really very different in their culture and their management of what they do. But nonetheless, NASA says it believes there were many failures that occurred in the design and testing of the software. And Boeing now says it’s going to have to recheck all flight software. That’s about a million lines of code.

CORNISH: What does this mean for their business?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, potentially, it’s quite a blow. And, in fact, Boeing has already budgeted $ 410 million because it may have to perform another flight test. He may have to launch another capsule before he can embark astronauts. This would add to the successes he has already experienced in his commercial aircraft division.

CORNISH: Until then – the astronauts.

BRUMFIEL: Well, it’s possible that we will see astronauts aboard an American rocket this year. Boeing says it doesn’t know when it’s going to be launched. But SpaceX had a successful test in January, and they’re now saying they could launch in Q2 with the crew on board. It would be around summer.

CORNISH: It’s Geoff Brumfiel from NPR.

Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Audie.


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