NASA and Boeing complete investigations into Starliner launch failure
An independent review team has concluded its investigation of NASA and Boeing’s failed Starliner launch last December. A total of 80 recommendations for future missions were put forward across several categories, and both organizations conducted their own internal investigations as well.
On December 20, 2019, the Starliner was launched on an uncrewed test flight. It was due to dock with the International Space Station soon after, but it wound up in the wrong orbit after a malfunction. Two days later, Mission Control brought it safely back to Earth.
To figure out exactly what went wrong and how it could be prevented in future, NASA and Boeing assembled a joint independent review team. Specifically, they found three primary anomalies that caused the failure, including two software glitches and a communication disconnect.
Investigations into the two software problems were wrapped up earlier this year, and now the review team has finished looking into the third issue. It appears that the Space-to-Ground Communication link was intermittently interrupted, which prevented Mission Control from correcting the software bugs mid-flight.
As a result, the review team reported 80 recommendations for corrective and preventative actions for Boeing and NASA to undertake. The full list is kept under wraps for corporate sensitivity reasons, but at least the categories they fall into have been made public.
Of these recommendations, 21 were concerned with testing and simulation. That includes more detailed testing for how software and hardware were integrated, and performing complete “run for record” tests before each flight.
A further 10 recommendations called for reassessing software requirements; 35 suggested updates to documentation and internal review processes; seven involved updating software code; and another seven recommended changes to safety reporting structures and adding an external RF frequency to reduce interference.
NASA also conducted its own “close call” investigation, which looked into organizational factors at NASA and Boeing that may have played a role in the anomaly. This team recommended that NASA works closely with its contractors to ensure that plans and tests are properly validated beforehand, and a best practices document will be developed for future use.
“NASA and Boeing have completed a tremendous amount of work reviewing the issues experienced during the uncrewed flight test of Starliner,” says Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator at NASA. “Ultimately, everything we’ve found will help us improve as we move forward in the development and testing of Starliner, and in our future work with commercial industry as a whole.”
Boeing has already promised that the Starliner will be relaunched, at the company’s expense, to demonstrate that the mission is still viable. For now, the timing on this relaunch, as well as how it affects the eventual crewed mission, remains unannounced.