WASHINGTON – NASA announced on July 7 that it had completed two important reviews resulting from Boeing’s flawed commercial flight test last December when the agency and the company agreed on a second test flight later this year to prepare.
NASA said that an independent review team (IRT), jointly organized by NASA and Boeing to investigate the CST-100 Starliner’s test flight last December, had completed its work after reviewing the agency’s 61 recommendations in March 19 had added recommendations.
The additional recommendations relate to communication problems that occurred during the abbreviated Mission Orbital Flight Test (OFT). NASA said Boeing will use a filter to reduce out-of-band interference that occasionally caused space-to-ground communication problems during this flight.
These problems occurred in addition to software errors in a mission timer that occurred immediately after launch and caused NASA to cancel a planned docking of the spacecraft with the International Space Station. In addition, there was a software configuration problem with engines in the service module that, if it had not been found and corrected during the two-day flight, could result in the service module hitting the crew̵
NASA did not publish the specific recommendations and said in a statement that the list was “company sensitive and proprietary”. It was found that the recommendations were divided into five broad categories: testing and simulating, software requirements, process and operational improvements, software updates, and knowledge acquisition and changes to Starliner hardware.
Boeing has started to implement these recommendations. “As soon as the IRT made recommendations, they added resources,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, in a call to reporters. “They gradually changed the software, tested the software, and added resources when needed.”
When this independent review was completed last spring, Doug Loverro, at the time the NASA administrator was responsible for researching and operating people, said that he considered the OFT mission a “high-visibility close call” that required a second review to identify additional issues that had to be addressed.
“We really wanted to make sure we looked deeply into ourselves and our Boeing teammates,” said Kathy Lueders, who took over as Associate Administrator for human research and operations in June after leading the commercial crew program. The review looked for additional knowledge that could be applied not only to Starliners, but also to other NASA programs for manned spaceflight.
This led to several recommendations, with a particular focus on system technology and integration as well as software development and testing. Stich said NASA had added personnel to work side by side with Boeing software.
Both Lueders and Stich admitted that NASA had not given enough weight to software testing. “Maybe we hadn’t embedded as many people in this process as we should,” said Stich. “It was an area where we just might not have as much NASA insight as we should have had in retrospect.”
He added that because of its familiarity with Boeing, due to its experience with other NASA programs, NASA may have been blind to some potential problems. NASA had focused more on the other commercial crew company SpaceX, also because it used a so-called “non-traditional approach” for software development.
“When a provider has a newer approach than another, it is often natural for a person to spend more time with this newer approach, and maybe with the more traditional approach, we didn’t take the time we needed,” he said .
Lueders said the lessons from the graduation review would help other programs in their directorate, from the Space Launch System to the Human Landing System program for the development of lunar lander. “Where we had problems was across interfaces,” she said, so there is a renewed focus on interfaces like those between SLS and Orion or between elements of SLS itself. “It gave us a pause and then a specific action to ensure that there are no hidden pitfalls. “
“We need to change our assumptions about our collaboration,” she said of NASA’s collaboration with commercial partners. “It will be a real insight that we can bring to our Human Lander System programs and other programs.”
Boeing, which did not attend NASA’s press conference, announced in April that it would conduct a second flight attempt called OFT-2 at its own expense. This mission is not yet officially planned, although Stich said current planning is planned for the end of this year.
“Today we are turning the page a bit from the OFT investigation phase to hardware development,” said OFT-2. “The current pace for the flight is to set up and test all software upgrades for a flight.” He refused to give a more precise start date than the “last part” of the year.
This makes it difficult to estimate an appointment for a crew flight test for Starliners, similar to the ongoing Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission. In addition, Boeing overtakes the Starliner that flew the OFT mission for this manned flight, a process the company is going through for the first time. However, he suggested that a flight next spring could be feasible. “We have to see how it all works if they finish the software and continue to overhaul the vehicle.”
Stich said there was no chance that Boeing would be removed from the commercial crew program. “At the moment, I can’t imagine a scenario where SpaceX is the only provider,” he said, arguing that the recommendations should address the issues that arose during the OFT mission prior to the OFT-2 flight. “I really don’t see a scenario where we would get to the flight and have a flight that is similar to OFT-1.”