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NASA Astronauts Aren't Worried About Safety After Boeing Starliner Anomaly

The uncrewed Boeing Starliner test capsule that launched today won't reach the International Space Station — but astronauts scheduled for the vehicle's next flight aren't worried.

NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann, along with their Boeing counterpart Chris Ferguson, are preparing to fly on Starliner's first crewed mission in 2020. Today (Dec. 20), that vehicle's uncrewed predecessor experienced an anomaly that meant the spacecraft couldn't safely reach the space station. It is expected to return to Earth safely, perhaps on Sunday (Dec. 22). But Fincke and Mann said they aren't concerned about the incident or how they would fare in a similar situation.

"We don't have any safety concerns," Mann said of the Starliner vehicle during a news conference held today.

Related: Boeing's 1st Starliner Flight Test in Photos

That sentiment was echoed by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who emphasized that although the Starliner vehicle flies itself by default, any humans on board can take over if need be. 

"To be very clear, our crew would have been safe," Bridenstine said during the news conference. "We may very well be docking with the International Space Station tomorrow had they been in the spacecraft."

NASA and Boeing are still sorting out precisely what occurred inside the spacecraft to cause the anomaly, which made Starliner believe it was at a different stage of flight and perform maneuvers according to an inappropriate timetable.

NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke will fly on Boeing Starliner's first crewed mission. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

But Fincke and Mann, as well as other astronauts who will fly on early Starliner missions, are highly trained test pilots, they said, able to manually control the spacecraft should a similar incident occur.

"There's always something, so that's why we flight-test," Fincke said. "That's why we have the manual capability that we have. It's not just a good idea … It's a NASA regulation that if we're going to have humans on board, have all the automation you want but always have a way out."

Mann said that the crew can control the spacecraft with the precision of firing or shutting off individual thrusters. That level of control is also available, if necessary, during landing operations.

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke snap a selfie with the rocket and spacecraft of Starliner's uncrewed test vehicle before its Dec. 20, 2019, launch. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

"This anomaly has to do with automation," Bridenstine said. "Nicole [Mann] and Mike [Fincke] are trained specifically to deal with the situation that happened today, where the automation was not working according to plan."

NASA's astronaut-training program ensures that crew members can respond safely during any kind of anomalous situation.

"These are the things that we spend our time training for in simulations," Fincke said. "We spend some time on when things go right, but we're always looking at what if things go wrong."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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  • Lagrange
    I can appreciate the carefully worded comments from NASA, but can't help feeling Jim Bridenstein's "hey, we're not concerned, if the crew had been flying the capsule we might well be docking at the station" is an overly kind response considering his past animosity for Space X. Boeing's failure to make the CORRECT orbit is kind of the main point, isn't it Jim? Not REACHING the space station is sort of a freaking FAILURE, isn't it Jim? Oh, yeah, that's right, Jim, you've been 'pumping' Boeing's re-cobbled Apollo-era tech and flushing billions to Boing-Boing since day one. Fo God's sake, they couldn't even make the correct orbit, and your celebrating? I'll be interested to see if they can even get it down intact.
    Reply
  • k-ho
    Well, besides that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
    Reply
  • Rougeaux
    The anomaly in this case was completely survivable and only resulted in a failure to reach the correct orbit, but Bridenstine's comments brought to mind this recommendation from the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report: "Future spacecraft crew survival systems should not rely on manual activation to protect the crew." I believe this was the first flight of the Centaur's dual-engine configuration atop an Atlas V, so it might not be fair to assign all the blame to Boeing for this one. But a failure, even one as benign as this, indicates that either the manufacturers didn't design in enough redundancy, or all the redundant systems failed. Neither case speaks highly of the system as a whole.

    Bridenstine's comments also remind me of the "normalization of deviance" that led directly to the loss of both Columbia (insulation foam always breaks off, but the impacts are always benign) and Challenger (SRB field joint O-rings always deform, but extrusion always re-seals those joints.) When humans (or human-rated unmanned craft) are involved, a partial failure must always be treated as a complete failure.
    Reply
  • ChrisA
    We really have to wait to see the root cause of this failure. It might be an obvious defect that can be easy to fix or it might be a more serious problem in just be pure luck the spacecraft survived.

    This could be as simple as a typo. Someone entered a "6" when they meant to type a "9" and this was not caught in the review process. In that case, they change the review process. But what if this turns out t be a faulty sensor and they discover there is no way to detect this kind of fault. Then a redesign is needed.

    In any case, they are going to need time for a full review and this will take some weeks or months.

    It surprised me that anyone at NASA or Being would comment about possible causes so early
    Reply
  • Keith
    Admin said:
    The uncrewed Boeing Starliner test capsule that launched today won't reach the International Space Station — but astronauts scheduled for the vehicle's next flight aren't worried.

    NASA Astronauts Aren't Worried About Safety After Boeing Starliner Anomaly : Read more
    "NASA and Boeing are still sorting out precisely what occurred inside the spacecraft to cause the anomaly"
    Really, so how is it possible to say that astronauts could have figured it out and corrected it in real time ???
    Reply