NASA/Boeing Team to Look for Root Cause of Starliner’s Mission Elapsed Timer Issue

NASA/Boeing Team to Look for Root Cause of Starliner’s Mission Elapsed Timer Issue

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced today that an independent team is being set up by NASA and Boeing to determine the root cause of what went wrong with the Mission Elapsed Timer on Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) last month.  The failure prevented Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew capsule from fulfilling all of its objectives, notably conducting rendezvous and docking operations with the International Space Station (ISS).  The team’s report will help determine whether a second OFT is needed before NASA agrees to put astronauts aboard Starliner.

Boeing is developing Starliner as a public-private partnership with NASA through the commercial crew program to ferry crews to and from the ISS.  SpaceX is developing its own system, Crew Dragon.  Both are years late.

NASA has not been able to launch anyone to ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. It pays Russia to take crews back and forth.  Confident at least one of the systems would be operating by now, NASA’s last purchased seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft is in April of this year.  It now is negotiating with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, for a seat in the fall of 2020 and perhaps another in the spring of 2021.  U.S. presence on the ISS will be extremely limited until Starliner and/or Crew Dragon are flying.

Both companies must conduct uncrewed test flights, and then crewed test flights, of their systems as steps towards certification.  SpaceX completed its Crew Dragon uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, 10 months ago.  It is now getting ready for an In-Flight Abort test on January 18.  A date for the crewed test flight, Demo-2, has not been set.

Boeing’s uncrewed test flight, Orbital Flight Test (OFT), of the Starliner capsule started perfectly with a December 20, 2019 launch by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.  The mission soon went awry, however.

Atlas V leaves Starliner on a suborbital trajectory.  Starliner’s own propulsion system must take the spacecraft into orbit and the rest of the way to ISS.  For reasons the joint investigation team will try to determine, the Mission Elapsed Timer (MET), or clock, on Starliner was set to the wrong time and did not trigger the engines to fire correctly.  Other onboard systems compensated and it reached orbit, but had depleted so much fuel there was not enough to continue the journey.

Starliner landed two days later.  Like the launch, the landing went very well and Starliner touched down where it was supposed to at White Sands Missile Range, NM.  It is the first U.S. human space capsule to land on land instead of in the ocean, not counting the U.S. airplane-like space shuttle that was a completely different design.

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft after landing at White Sands Missile Range, NM, Dec. 22, 2019. The white tent is an environmental enclosure about to be placed around the spacecraft so technicians could pump in warm air to prevent propellant lines from freezing in the cold temperatures at the site. Screengrab from NASA TV

But the bottom line is that Starliner did not achieve all of its test objectives in orbit, and what happened to the MET is a mystery.  Boeing Vice President for Space and Launch Jim Chilton explained that Starliner gets its timing data from the Atlas V rocket and somehow Starliner reached into the Atlas V systems and “grabbed the wrong coefficient.”  The clock was off by 11 hours.

The question is whether NASA will require another uncrewed flight test before proceeding to the crewed flight test.

Bridenstine said on his blog today that the joint investigation “is targeted to last about two months” and NASA will be evaluating data at the same time to determine if another uncrewed flight is required.  A decision “is not expected for several weeks.”

In parallel, NASA is evaluating the data received during the mission to determine if another uncrewed demonstration is required. This decision is not expected for several weeks as teams take the necessary time for this review. NASA’s approach will be to determine if NASA and Boeing received enough data to validate the system’s overall performance, including launch, on-orbit operations, guidance, navigation and control, docking/undocking to the space station, reentry and landing. Although data from the uncrewed test is important for certification, it may not be the only way that Boeing is able to demonstrate its system’s full capabilities.  — NASA Administrator Bridenstine

Starliner is currently on its way back to Florida from New Mexico, a 10-day trip.

While Bridenstine said a decision will not be made for several weeks, the agency and Boeing are downplaying what happened and painting a positive picture about all the spacecraft was able to achieve during its two days in orbit.

To be sure, NASA is anxious to get the commercial crew systems flying and another flight test would push that schedule out even further.

Bridenstine’s post today acknowledged that the uncrewed flight test, including docking with ISS, is part of the contract with Boeing, but added: “Although docking was planned, it may not have to be accomplished prior to the crew demonstration. Boeing would need NASA’s approval to proceed with a flight test with astronauts onboard.”

In fact, shortly after launch when it was clear Starliner’s engines had not fired at the right time, Bridenstine appeared at a press conference with the two NASA astronauts who will fly on the first crewed flight of Starliner, Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke.  They insisted that if they had been aboard, they very likely would have been able to make the mission a success by firing the engines manually.

Avoiding a second uncrewed test flight would also benefit Boeing, which is working under a firm fixed-price contract with NASA for $4.6 billion.  In a November 2019 report, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) strongly criticized NASA for overpaying Boeing almost $300 million for a 2016 contract change, and Boeing for charging much more per seat than SpaceX.  The OIG reported that NASA officials had said Boeing might not continue as a commercial crew provider without the additional funds.  Boeing rejected the OIG’s conclusions and insists it is in the program to stay.

Whatever the cost and schedule impacts of the OFT anomaly, astronaut safety remains the top concern.  NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) issued its annual report for 2019 today. After reviewing both the accomplishments and challenges faced by SpaceX and Boeing, ASAP praised NASA for not “yielding to schedule pressure by skipping important development milestones, removing test and analysis content, or backing away from well-established margins of safety.”

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