Space

NASA and Boeing complete investigations into Starliner launch failure

NASA and Boeing complete inves...
An artist's rendering of the Starliner in orbit
An artist's rendering of the Starliner in orbit
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An artist's rendering of the Starliner in orbit
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An artist's rendering of the Starliner in orbit

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.

Source: NASA

7 comments
Mark T.
At least eighty (80) problems with a spacecraft that was supposed to carry astronauts on the next flight?! Eighty! Boeing's approach is obviously fundamentally flawed. Some have attributed this to the accountants calling the shots, outsourcing software development to cheap inexperienced coders, and ignoring fundamental engineering truths like stuff must be tested end-to-end before being flown. This toxic environment helps explain how Boeing has wasted tens of billions of dollars and a decade of time on its SLS rocket but taken exactly nobody into space and probably never will. Anyone with even a passing familiarity of the situation can see the writing on the wall. Boeing needs to be replaced with SpaceX so we can actually start exploring space again instead of pretending to go through the motions for big profits like Boeing.
Zerozen
Probably with the next relaunch will be 10 years from now. We know how Boeing runs things lately.
WB
Meanwhile Boeing was payed a ton more money than SpaceX for no reason despite them supposedly being in a fair bake off. Imagine what spacex could have done without this boeing cluster f...
bwana4swahili
Yet again Boeing has software 'glitches'? Maybe they should fire the whole lot of their questionable software development staff and start fresh with computer scientists that know what they're doing!?
Rkison
Mark T. This is not your father's NASA.

NASA is currently the premier diversity and inclusion government organization and its design and engineering staffs suffer accordingly.

The organization has the number-one ranking for diversity and inclusion, among all government agencies, for the last six years the index has been measured.
Karmudjun
Mark T: You are right. Only 80 problems with a spacecraft in its last unmanned shakedown prior to carrying pilots that could have compensated for the glitches. Evidently you only know of errors that 'fundamentally' destroy a project. These were definitely not those, and like most good science, failures lead to breakthroughs. Ever heard of penicillin? That error was a cluster or problems that resulted in a new approach to infections. Yep, fundamentally flawed - in perspective.

When science becomes a toxic environment, when the fundamental truths of science - unique to each specialty - are not integrated across specialties you have compatibility issues. Glitches. Errors. Sometimes even catastrophic failures. And I would say MOST people with a passing familiarity of the situation(s) know what I'm talking about and wonder why the righteous indignation? Were you one of those inexperienced coders that were downsized? Do you work in toxic work environments and so you see all learning processes and shakedown phases as failures? Diversity, debriefings, and even catastrophic failures all advance the capacity and capabilities of science.
ljaques
Mark T and others: Right you are. This AIN'T your father's NASA, who would have snuffed 79 or 80 of those problems prior to the flight. To expand, NASA is now not only the Diversity and Inclusion institution of our government, it's the leading Science-by-Feelings-about-Climate-Change institution or our government. Thank James effing Hansen for his decades on non-science at NASA and Goddard. How many lives will the deSCIENCEing of SCIENCE cost us in the long run? As if 2020 couldn't get any worse...How many people, total, did it take to overlook EIGHTY problems for one flight program?