Boeing: Starliner capsule can return to flight with minimal work

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla., Jan. 15 (UPI) — Boeing officials said Wednesday the company’s Starliner space capsule can be fully refurbished with almost no new hardware following a software malfunction during its maiden flight Dec. 20.

“We’re looking at minimal refurbishment to return to flight,” said Ramon Sanchez, Boeing’s senior operations lead on the spacecraft. “We will put a primary focus on the parachute system … and also on the interior of the vehicle.”

The company is assessing propulsion, landing and fuel systems, while a separate review is looking at why the capsule suffered a problem with its mission clock that caused it to miss docking with the International Space Station.

“We’ll make sure everything is still functioning properly, and get it turned around as soon as possible,” Sanchez said. “The data is going to drive most of the review.”

He said the major physical work on the capsule will be removing the outer shell to examine components inside. Airbags will be sent to a supplier to refurbish them for use on a future launch.

The outer shell showed burn marks typical of a spacecraft that has re-entered the atmosphere. But it had fewer burn marks than Boeing expected, said Tim Reith, spacecraft engineering manager.

“None of the tiles will need to be replaced,” Reith said, adding that the company intends to clean off any burned residue from the 3,000-degree heat the capsule experienced as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

He said the refurbishment likely will take about eight months. “Three to four months would be an aggressive turnaround — if we had to,” he said “For the most part, all of that hardware is intended to fly again.

On Wednesday, Boeing’s next Starliner sat in the same building in which the flown capsule is being examined. NASA has said its investigation of the Starliner malfunction will last at least two months, but it expects to decide in a matter of weeks if the new Starliner will be allowed to carry astronauts without further test flights.

Reith provided details of the moments in the mission control room when Boeing and NASA realized something was wrong.

“It was very tense,” Reith said. “As you’re seeing things for the first time, you’re trying to understand what it should be doing. There was a lot of dialogue back and forth between the teams.”

Boeing showed the capsule to reporters for the first time Wednesday after it made the journey from its landing site in New Mexico to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We’ve got a lot of data to go through still,” Reith said. “We’ll learn that maybe we want to, maybe change the timing of things we do on the mission, but don’t have any plans for any large-scale hardware changes.”

Starliner is the first American space capsule to return to land rather than splashing down in the ocean. Boeing has said it intends to reuse each capsule 10 times.

Boeing is competing and complementing SpaceX in NASA’s new program to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. Discovering what went wrong on its first flight is crucial to that goal.

The capsule orbited the Earth 33 times and demonstrated a successful re-entry and landing.

Astronauts said they could have taken control of the craft had they been on board, guiding it manually to the space station.

NASA is feeling pressure to stop relying on Russian Soyuz capsules to carry astronauts to the space station. Boeing and SpaceX are years behind schedule in developing a new spacecraft to carry people.

The challenges with Starliner’s testing come as a federal watchdog, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said NASA needs a new approach to investigating accidents involving work by private contractors like Boeing and SpaceX. That’s because NASA is relying more on those contractors than ever before.