Testing opportunities missed ahead of ill-fated Boeing Starliner spaceflight, review finds

NASA: Boeing must come up with corrective plan prior to next spaceflight

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 15, 2020. (Thomas Metevia, WKMG 2020)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – An independent review of Boeing’s ill-fated Starliner spaceflight found testing opportunities were missed before launch and the next time Starliner will fly remains unknown, Boeing and NASA officials said Friday as they revealed the results of their joint investigation into Starliner’s December orbital test flight.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner launched from Cape Canaveral in December without astronauts on board. The spacecraft was bound for the International Space Station to test its launch, docking and landing systems but the spacecraft was forced to return to Earth 48 hours after launch when it missed a critical maneuver to catch up to the space station.

NASA previously said three main issues were discovered during Boeing’s December orbital test flight, two were related to software errors and the third was an intermittent communication problem between the spacecraft and controllers on the ground.

On Friday, Boeing and NASA officials said an independent review team has made more than 60 corrective recommendations to Boeing and identified three specific issues that must be addressed before the spacecraft can fly again.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Doug Loverro said, specifically, the review team found Boeing did not run all possible software tests ahead of the first flight.

“There are four ways software could have run,” Loverro said. “We didn’t test all four ways it could have run.”

The independent review team found that too much authority was given to the software board before changes were made to the spacecraft software. Those changes should have been brought up to the design review board, Loverro said.

Last week, Boeing Starliner Program Manager John Mulholland said Boeing will now test the spacecraft software from start to finish prior to launch.

NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders said next Boeing will come up with a plan to correct the issues discovered during the review and present that plan to NASA, possibly by the end of the month. NASA will then need to approve or recommend changes to the plan.

Since 2011, the U.S. has relied on Russian rockets to get its crew to the space station.

NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to build human-rated spacecraft to fly U.S. astronauts as part of the Commercial Crew program, awarding the private companies a combined $6.4 billion. Both companies have experienced delays as they work to certify their capsules to fly crew to the ISS and bring them home safely.

Due to the program delays, NASA is in negotiation with Russia to purchase extra seats to fly astronauts to the ISS.

The Boeing Starliner Orbital Test Flight on Dec. 20 was part of the process to certify the spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts.

Elon Musk’s company successfully launched Crew Dragon -- without astronauts -- to the ISS and brought it home for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown last year.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is slated to launch with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley as soon as this spring, marking the first time Americans have launched from U.S. soil since the shuttle program.

After Friday’s call with NASA and Boeing, it’s still unclear if Starliner will have to repeat its orbital test flight before flying astronauts because it did not dock at the space station.

“Quite frankly we don’t know,” Loverro said when asked about another uncrewed test flight. “I can’t even tell you what the schedule will be on that.”

NASA will evaluate Boeing’s plan to correct the Starliner issues before it determines if there will be a second test flight, Loverro said.

Boeing’s Senior Vice President Jim Chilton said the company is ready to repeat a test flight without a crew, if NASA asks.

“'All of us want crew safety No. 1," Chilton said. "Whatever testing we’ve got to do to make that happen, we embrace it.”

The results of the review will also roll over into another major NASA program Boeing is involved in, the Space Launch System, otherwise known as the Artemis program rocket. Boeing is the prime contractor for the rocket’s core stage and the developer of the flight electronics.

A high-visibility close call like Starliner’s triggers a review of Boeing as a whole in addition to the independent review just completed, according to NASA.

Loverro said this procedure allows NASA to formally document lessons learned from the Starliner flight and perform “an organizational root causes assessment,” meaning NASA will look at both Boeing and NASA organizational processes.

“I think we could all agree that it was a close call, we could have lost a spacecraft twice during this mission,” Loverro said, adding if it weren’t for Boeing’s actions, the orbital test flight could have ended very differently.

Mulholland said the changes from the larger review could help “the whole space ecosystem.”