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NASA closes investigation into Boeing Starliner’s botched first spaceflight

NASA, Boeing joint investigation finds 80 corrections before Boeing can repeat orbital test flight

FILE - This Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 file photo shows the Boeing Starliner spacecraft after it landed in White Sands, N.M. On Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, Boeing acknowledged it failed to conduct full and adequate software tests before the botched space debut of its astronaut capsule late last year. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
FILE - This Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019 file photo shows the Boeing Starliner spacecraft after it landed in White Sands, N.M. On Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, Boeing acknowledged it failed to conduct full and adequate software tests before the botched space debut of its astronaut capsule late last year. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP) (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – The “close call” investigation into Boeing Starliner’s December orbital test flight is now complete, according to NASA, and Boeing will voluntarily make more than 80 changes to the spacecraft hardware and operations before it repeats the test flight to the International Space Station, and eventually fly astronauts.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner launched from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 20, sending the capsule on what was meant to be its first uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station. However, 30 minutes after launch, a software issue caused the Starliner to miss a critical maneuver that would have sent it on its way to the space station.

The launch was part of Starliner’s orbital flight test, or OFT mission, during which the spacecraft was scheduled to launch, autonomously dock at the International Space Station and then return to Earth, landing in the New Mexico desert. The issue post-launch caused Boeing to bring the spacecraft back to Earth 24 hours later instead of docking with the ISS.

Now nearly six months after the failed test flight, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight office, Kathy Lueders, said the independent review into the “high visibility close call” is complete and Boeing is working to make changes before it can repeat the orbital test flight again, but this time on the private company’s dime.

A “high-visibility close call” review is conducted by NASA to look into the “root cause” of what went wrong leading up to and after a mishap. For example, NASA called for a “high-visibility close call” investigation in 2013 after an aborted spacewalk when an Italian astronaut had water in his spacesuit helmet.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Lueders said NASA wanted to “make sure it had uncovered every single rock and... made sure that there weren’t any other organizational causes that were out there that we can learn to have us get ready for crewed flight.”

An initial joint investigation with Boeing and NASA team earlier this year found 60 recommendations and when that joint investigation wrapped up this summer the number of changes recommended totaled 80. Boeing voluntarily said it would make these changes ahead of another flight.

Independently, NASA conducted it’s close call review and that concluded in June.

Here’s a breakdown of the changes NASA and Boeing found during the joint investigation:

  • Testing and Simulation: 21 recommendations including the need for greater hardware and software integration testing; performance of an end-to-end “run for record” test prior to each flight using the maximum amount of flight hardware available; reviewing subsystem behaviors and limitations; and addressing any identified simulation or emulation gaps.
  • Requirements: 10 recommendations including an assessment of all software requirements with multiple logic conditions to ensure test coverage.
  • Process and Operational Improvements: 35 recommendations including modifications to change board documentation; bolstering required participants in peer reviews and test data reviews; and increasing the involvement of subject matter experts in safety critical areas.
  • Software: 7 recommendations including updating the software code and associated artifacts to correct the Mission Elapsed Timer Epoch and Service Module disposal anomalies; and making the antenna selection algorithm more robust.
  • Knowledge Capture and Hardware Modification: 7 recommendations such as organizational changes to the safety reporting structure; amending the Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) approach; and the addition of an external Radio Frequency (RF) filter to reject out-of-band interference.

Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Boeing has already been implementing changes to the spacecraft software and testing processes. He maintained it’s possible Starliner could repeat it’s uncrewed test flight this year.

“I would say the pacing item right now for flight is getting all the software upgrades in place and tested for flight as early as later this calendar year,” Stich said.

The independent review panel also took into consideration culture at NASA and Boeing. Stich said perhaps the space agency should have had more people embedded in the Starliner processes ahead of the December launch. Lueders said OFT was a learning process and will likely change the way Boeing and NASA work together on future contracts.

“Both sides realize that if we’re going to be operating in this model we do need to change our assumptions and how we’re working together,” Lueders said of NASA and Boeing.

Boeing officials were not on the call with reporters Tuesday. A joint statement from the company and NASA was posted to NASA.gov.

Boeing and SpaceX are both part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and contracted to fly NASA astronauts to and from the space station. SpaceX successfully launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS in May. The pair will return to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean later this summer.

Stich said he wants Boeing and NASA to go through and test all the software recommendations for the spacecraft before they can come up with a launch date for the second uncrewed Starliner orbital flight test.

Boeing communications representative Josh Barrett said in an email Boeing is nearly finished auditing its software process.

“Currently, we are on-pace to finish any needed software adjustments and begin the formal qualification test at the end of the summer,” Barrett said.

This is a developing story and will be updated.


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