Following the failed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft in December, NASA on Monday released the findings of an investigation into the root causes of the launch’s failure and the culture that led to them.
Over the course of its review, an independent team identified 80 “recommendations” for NASA and Boeing to address before the Starliner spacecraft launches again. In addition to calling for better oversight and documentation, these recommendations stress the need for greater hardware and software integration testing. Notably, the review team called for an end-to-end test prior to each flight using the maximum amount of flight hardware available.
This is significant, because before the December test flight, Boeing did not run an integrated software test that encompassed the roughly 48-hour period from launch through docking to the station. Instead, Boeing broke the test into chunks. The first chunk ran from launch through the point at which Starliner separated from the second stage of the Atlas V booster.
As a result of this, on the December flight, the spacecraft captured the wrong “mission elapsed time” from its Atlas V launch vehicle. It was supposed to pick up this time during the terminal phase of the countdown, but it grabbed data 11 hours off of the correct time instead. This led to a delayed push to reach orbit and caused the vehicle’s thrusters to expend too much fuel. Because of this, Starliner did not dock with the International Space Station.
A second error, caught and fixed just a few hours before the vehicle returned to Earth through the atmosphere, was due to a software mapping error that would have caused thrusters on Starliner’s service module to fire in the wrong manner. Starliner was very nearly lost. The combination of these two errors prompted NASA to initiate what it termed a “High Visibility Close Call” investigation.
“Every mission is a learning experience,” said NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Kathy Lueders, during the news conference.
More software oversight
The investigation found both problems with Boeing’s software as well as NASA’s oversight of the process. Lueders acknowledged that the agency had focused its efforts more on reviewing “high risk” areas of the mission (such as when Starliner was in the vicinity of the space station, which NASA invested more than $100 billion to design, develop, and launch, along with international contributions.
“This was always a tough problem,” Lueders said. “Where do you apply the resources to make sure you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck?” As a result, NASA learned that it needs to do more oversight on software, she said, given Boeing’s “pretty pervasive software issues.”
Boeing announced in April that it will fly a second Starliner test mission for NASA, at its own expense. The company set aside $410 million to pay for the capsule, Atlas V rocket, and costs associated with a second mission.
NASA officials said they hoped to fly this mission later in 2020, but this will depend on whether Boeing and NASA complete dozens of upgrades to Starliner’s software, integrated tests of this new software are successful, and the space station can accommodate this additional mission with a crowded schedule toward the end of this year.
If this test flight is successful, NASA will allow Boeing to proceed with a test flight involving three astronauts. This could occur some time in 2021.