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NASA Calls For Reviews Of Boeing Spacecraft After Software Bugs Plague Test Flight


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

Welcome to the studio.


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

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

CORNISH: Now, what are these new spacecraft actually going to be for?

BRUMFIEL: Well, they're basically just to carry crew to and from the International Space Station. And I'd say they're more like space taxis than any sort of ambitious spaceship. They're kind of retro. They're little capsules like you might've seen in the Apollo era. They're not that big, but they're really important to NASA because right now, the only way they can get crew to and from the station is aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. Now, both capsules have been tested in recent months - Boeing back in December. And there were some problems with that Boeing test, and that's what's made the news today.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit more about that. Just what went wrong?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the short answer is that Boeing capsule never actually made it to the space station, and that had to do with an internal software error. Basically, it got confused about where it was and ended up in the wrong orbit. But now there's evidence that there's a second, potentially much more serious problem with the software. Boeing didn't spot this problem until the spacecraft was already in space. And, basically, it could have caused the spacecraft to tumble out of control, maybe even burn up upon reentry. Engineers scrambled to patch it. They uploaded the patch while it was in orbit, hours before it landed. And it came back safely. Now, of course, there was no one on board. This was a test. But it still wasn't a great look for Boeing.

CORNISH: Obviously, the background context here is the 737 Max. That was Boeing's new airplane, which had catastrophic software issues, right? Lives were lost. Is this related?

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

MARY LYNNE DITTMAR: I think this is a really easy narrative. But I have to tell you I worked for Boeing a long time ago, and these are almost different companies.

BRUMFIEL: And what she means by that is the space division of the company and the commercial aircraft part of the company are really, really different in their culture and their management of what they do. But nevertheless, NASA says it believes there have been numerous breakdowns that occurred in the software design and testing. And Boeing now says it's going to have to reverify all the flight software. That's approximately a million lines of code.

CORNISH: What does that mean for their business?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, potentially, it's quite a blow. And, in fact, Boeing has already earmarked $410 million because it may have to do another flight test. It may have to launch another capsule before it can put astronauts aboard. That would be in addition to the hits it's already taken to its commercial aircraft division.

CORNISH: In the meantime - the astronauts.

BRUMFIEL: Well, there is a possibility that we will see astronauts aboard an American rocket this year. Boeing says it doesn't know when it's going to launch. But SpaceX has had a successful test back in January, and they now say they may launch in the second quarter with crew aboard. That would be towards the summertime.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA SONG, "NOTHIN LIKE U") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.