The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after it landed in White Sands, N.M., on Dec. 22. NASA Photo by Bill Ingalls/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 8 (UPI) -- NASA is establishing a "joint, independent team" to probe the failure of Boeing's Starliner space capsule to reach the International Space Station during a test flight.
The investigation comes as NASA is feeling pressure to stop relying on Russian Soyuz capsules to carry astronauts to the station. Boeing and its competitor, SpaceX, are years behind schedule in developing a new spacecraft to carry people.
Starliner was launched Dec. 20 without a crew, and a problem with its mission clock caused it to burn fuel needlessly. That meant it wasn't able to reach the orbit necessary to catch up with the space station.
Despite the problem, Boeing and NASA said the test mission accomplished most of its goals. Initial data showed the capsule was a safe environment in which to carry people. Astronauts said they could have taken control of the craft had they been on board, guiding it manually to the space station.
Once the investigation team is chosen, the probe could take two months to complete, NASA said. The agency hasn't decided whether to put astronauts on the capsule for a future mission without another test flight.
"NASA is evaluating the data received during the mission to determine if another uncrewed demonstration is required," the agency said Tuesday. "This decision is not expected for several weeks."
NASA said data from the uncrewed test is essential for certification, but other ways might exist to demonstrate the capsule's full capabilities.
The probe also comes as a federal watchdog, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said NASA needs a new approach to investigating private contractors like Boeing and SpaceX. That's because NASA is relying more on those contractors than ever before.
"This is a whole new era," said Marco Cáceres, senior analyst for aerospace consultants at the Teal Group, based in Fairfax, Va. "In the past, any vehicle carrying astronauts was owned and mostly operated by NASA. There were contractors, but NASA was firmly in charge. That's different today."
Cáceres said his concern is that once NASA gets involved, politics is involved.
"We understand now that NASA overlooked things during the shuttle era under a climate of political pressure," he said. "In the end, if a mission fails and someone dies, that would set everything back for a serious long-term delay."
The Starliner capsule that flew is being transported to the company's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., for more tests and refurbishment. It is expected to arrive Sunday.