Loverro: No Decision Yet On Repeating Starliner OFT

Loverro: No Decision Yet On Repeating Starliner OFT

The head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Doug Loverro, said today that he does not know when NASA will decide whether Boeing must repeat the flawed CST-100 Starliner uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT).  An Independent Review Team (IRT) made more than 60 recommendations on how to fix the software anomalies that occurred. Boeing now must come up with a plan to address them before such a decision is made.  Loverro has designated the Starliner OFT anomalies a “high visibility close call” incident, meaning NASA will conduct its own organizational root cause assessment and capture lessons learned.

Doug Loverro, Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Boeing is developing Starliner as part of NASA’s commercial crew program to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  It is a public-private partnership where Boeing retains ownership of the vehicle and NASA purchases services.  In this type of acquisition, the government has less oversight than with a traditional contract and the IRT was set up by Boeing, not NASA.  Boeing asked NASA to join the review.  But it is NASA that will decide whether Boeing must repeat the test before agreeing to put NASA astronauts aboard the vehicle.

Today, two Boeing executives, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, and Loverro briefed the media on the results of the IRT.  John Mulholland, Vice President and Program Manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, spoke with reporters last week to discuss some of the recommendations.  Today he and Loverro were joined by Boeing Senior Vice President for Space and Launch Jim Chilton and NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders.

The IRT was established by Boeing to investigate three specific anomalies — two software errors and a number of communications system dropouts — that occurred during the December 20-22, 2019 OFT.  No one was aboard and the spacecraft did land safely at White Sands, New Mexico, but after reading the IRT report, Loverro decided to formally designate the incident within NASA as “high visibility close call.”

That means NASA will now conduct its own organizational root cause assessment and ensure whatever lessons learned are captured to inform future programs.  He said the designation is the “lowest level” of concern that could be assigned, less than a “mishap,” of which there are four categories. But it was high visibility, and it was a close call.  He stressed that it is not a review of NASA’s safety culture, but to understand the organizational elements that may have caused the incident and identify needed fixes.

As Mulholland explained last week, the two software failures were due to inadequate testing procedures.  The first meant the Mission Elapsed Timer on Starliner was off by 11 hours so after the spacecraft separated from its Atlas V rocket, its automated systems failed to fire the engines correctly to achieve orbit because they thought the orbital insertion burn had already occurred.  A communications problem, whose cause is still unclear, prevented ground controllers from immediately commanding the correct engine burn sequence. The spacecraft reached orbit, but only after consuming much more fuel than planned.  It did not have enough to rendezvous and dock with the ISS so did not complete that part of the test flight.

Artist’s illustration of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Credit: Boeing

Starliner remained in orbit for two days conducting other tests while engineers on the ground scoured the software to determine what went wrong and look for other problems. They found one just in time.  Another software error could have led to a catastrophic ending during reentry and landing.  On its way back to Earth, Starliner separates into two segments — the Service Module and Crew Module.  The Service Module is commanded into a disposal sequence so it burns up in the atmosphere while the Crew Module descends under parachute to the ground.  The error was caught just hours before landing.  Otherwise the two sections could have bumped into each other, damaging the Crew Module’s heat shield or parachutes, with disastrous results.

The IRT made 61 recommendations to Boeing on how to fix its software testing procedures.  One is to conduct end-to-end tests instead of breaking the tests into “chunks.” For example, Boeing did not catch the error that led to the wrong time being set on Starliner because the software simulation test ended at launch, not minutes later when the spacecraft separated from the rocket.  Mulholland said Boeing now will conduct end-to-end tests from launch to docking, and from undocking to landing.

A decision on what happens next must wait until NASA sees and reviews the Boeing plan.  “Quite frankly, right now we don’t know” when a decision will be made about whether the test flight must be repeated, Loverro said.  We are “still a ways away from that” and “I can’t even tell you the schedule for that.”

One requirement of the test flight under Boeing’s existing contract was to demonstrate rendezvous and docking with the ISS, but that did not happen.  Asked whether that remains a requirement, Loverro replied not necessarily.  NASA required Boeing to tell NASA how it planned to demonstrate that the spacecraft was safe for NASA astronauts.  Boeing’s answer was to perform an uncrewed test flight that would dock with the ISS.  NASA agreed and that became part of the contract.  Now, however, Boeing could come back with an alternative plan that does not require docking and NASA would consider it.

Lueders added that NASA’s goal is to get to crewed flight as soon as possible without jeopardizing the crew.

For Boeing’s part, Chilton asserted the company “stands ready to repeat” the OFT if NASA so desires.  There is “not any intent on our part to avoid it. … All of us want crew safety number one.”

In fact, Boeing took a $410 million charge against earnings for the fourth quarter of 2019 in case the reflight is needed.

NASA plans to use public-private partnerships for future human spaceflight programs, including development of Human Landing Systems (HLS) for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.  Asked if any lessons have been learned already about what to include in those contracts, Loverro responded there is “no question we will change how it was planned to manage HLS.”  There will be “more prescribed testing and prescribed kinds of testing” than what was written down in these documents.  “We got smarter” between the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, and NASA is already better at writing new contracts.

Meanwhile, Boeing has asked the IRT to continue working on determining the cause of the communications problems during the OFT.  There were 37 communications dropouts over the 2-day mission.  One of them is understood, but not the other 36, all of which occurred over northern Europe and Russia.  Most recently, Boeing has been looking into antenna selection and some of the algorithms as the source of the problem, but no definitive cause has been identified.

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