Investigation of Botched Starliner Test Exposes Boeing’s Weakness as a NASA Partner

Investigation of Botched Starliner Test Exposes Boeing’s Weakness as a NASA Partner

An independent NASA-Boeing review team has completed its investigation into serious issues that arose during a test of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft late last year. Boeing has now been given no less than 80 recommendations to put into practice, in what is an alarming display of the problems at the aerospace company.

The 80 recommendations include the 61 presented to Boeing this past March following the first phase of the investigation, according to a NASA press release. Boeing is already working through some of these recommendations and is targeting a second uncrewed test of its CST-100 Starliner system later this year, though an exact date has not been specified.

At a press conference today, NASA officials said the agency’s relationship with Boeing remains untarnished and that the company will not play second fiddle to other partners, namely SpaceX.

“I cannot imagine a situation in which SpaceX is the only commercial provider,” said Steve Stich, program manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CPP), during the conference.

Today’s announcement has to do with a botched test from late last year in which an uncrewed Boeing CST-100 Starliner failed to reach its intended orbit. On December 20, 2019, the spacecraft experienced a software automation glitch as it entered space, resulting in an “off nominal” orbital insertion. This caused Starliner to burn excess fuel, making it impossible for it to rendezvous with the International Space Station.

It was a big disappointment for NASA but especially for Boeing — one of two private space companies currently participating in NASA’s CPP, an ongoing initiative to restore America’s ability to launch astronauts from U.S. soil.

The less-than-perfect Starliner mission was considered a setback for Boeing in December, but in hindsight it’s even worse, given recent events; on May 30, SpaceX — the other CCP participant — successfully delivered NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS.

Soon after the failed orbital insertion, NASA and Boeing blamed a Mission Elapsed Timer (MET) glitch, in which clocks on the spacecraft and Atlas V rocket were out of synch. Starliner’s computers thought it was somewhere it was not, so it triggered a fuel burn.

In March, the joint NASA-Boeing Independent Review team presented its preliminary findings, revealing more problems with the mission. In addition to the MET problem, the investigation uncovered yet another coding error, one having to do with a problematic and potentially unsafe service module separation sequence from the rocket. There was also an unexpected loss of space-to-ground communications during the test.

Obviously, this is why we test: to uncover potential problems. But compared to the smooth sailing of the crewed SpaceX Demo-2 mission in May, this was a royal mess. That said, NASA officials tried to cast it all in a positive light.

“We learned that there’s the potential for these pretty pervasive software issues that we thought would’ve been caught,” said Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations mission directorate, during today’s press conference. “This is a really huge learning opportunity for us to look at our other processes with a new lens…and catch the errors at the right time.”

The 80 recommendations are not publicly available, as they apparently contain sensitive proprietary data, but NASA did provide a broad idea of what Boeing needs to do. This includes improved testing and simulation, new development requirements, improvements to processes and operations, new and updated software, and organizational changes.

NASA has added more of its team members to the Boeing side to improve integration, explained Stich. He said Boeing is making changes to Starliner’s communication and software system to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Boeing “is very committed to finding problems,” he added. As for timelines, Stich wouldn’t speculate, saying it’ll only be after the updated software is tested that “we can think about when we’re going to fly.”

When asked about the implications of a second failed test to Boeing, Stich said NASA isn’t likely to ditch its partner, describing the relationship as “very solid.” To which Lueders added: “We learn things with two new vehicles. We would like to have that similar redundancy.”

In terms of why the SpaceX Demo-2 test went off without a hitch while the Starliner test was replete with issues and now in need of dozens of fixes, Lueders and Stich said part of the problem was that NASA got fixated on SpaceX’s novel developmental approach, which meant the space agency wasn’t inclined to focus on Boeing’s more familiar approach, particularly when it came to software development.

“Maybe we didn’t quite take the time we needed to, in hindsight,” said Stich. “It’s a bit of a wake-up call for NASA.”

Interestingly, NASA may integrate a SpaceX-like approach to its own development strategies, in which program engineers have to sign off on their software. Lueders described this as a “very strong systems engineering approach,” saying NASA needs “to make sure owners of systems actually understand how systems operate and own that.” The whole thing “has been a big learning experience for us,” she said.

NASA would also like to conduct an Organizational Safety Assessment to find any potential issues or shortcomings at the Boeing workplace. Such assessments require face-to-face meetings, which aren’t currently possible owing to the covid-19 pandemic, explained Lueders.

In light of these findings, Boeing will conduct a second orbital test later this year at no cost to NASA.

The review team also developed recommendations for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, which NASA is expected to integrate into its future programs, such as the upcoming Artemis mission to the Moon.

Trial and error is obviously part of the process — space is hard, after all — but Boeing clearly needs to clean up its act. The company came under fire earlier this year after yet another software problem was detected on its Boeing 737 Max aeroplane, which has been grounded since last year after two fatal accidents.

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