NASA Safety Panel Urges Independent Review of Boeing’s Starliner Program

NASA Safety Panel Urges Independent Review of Boeing’s Starliner Program

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is urging NASA to establish an independent review of Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew transportation system before launching the spacecraft with people aboard. NASA and Boeing currently are planning that Crew Flight Test for July, but ASAP clearly is not convinced it is ready.

During a May 25 public teleconference at the end of its second quarter 2023 meeting, ASAP Chair Patricia Sanders cautioned that despite the success of the commercial crew program so far with launches of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, “this is no time for complacency.”

The Starliner team works to finalize the mate of the crew module and new service module for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test that will take NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams to and from the International Space Station. Photo credit: Boeing/John Grant
NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, commander of the Starliner Crew Flight Test.

In 2014, NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing to build crew transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station through Public Private Partnerships. Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner are the result. NASA does not own the systems, but simply buys services from SpaceX and Boeing after certifying them as safe for NASA’s use. The agency wanted two dissimilar systems for redundancy in case one had to be grounded for a period of time.

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, pilot of the Starliner Crew Flight Test.

SpaceX began crewed flights in 2020 not only for NASA, but private customers. Two Crew Dragons are docked at the ISS right now, in fact. One delivered NASA’s Crew-6, the other a private astronaut mission for Axiom Space, Axiom-2.

Boeing is far behind its competitor. Starliner’s uncrewed flight test, OFT-2, was successfully conducted only last year after a partial failure in 2019 that ASAP said could have ended catastrophically due to software errors, followed by delays due to corroded propulsion system valves that scrubbed an attempted launch in 2021.

The next step towards certification by NASA is the Crew Flight Test, CFT, currently targeted for launch on July 21. Two NASA astronauts, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, will be aboard.

ASAP has been keeping a close eye on Starliner and warning NASA not to rush to launch CFT for the past year. They reiterated that yesterday.

In recognizing the importance of redundant U.S. crewed transportation as a valuable goal, there should not be an impatience either in certifying the second provider [Boeing] until certification requirements can be achieved. … While there is a projected launch date for CFT, this date represents an opportunity in the launch schedule and ISS manifest and not necessarily an acknowledgement of readiness to conduct that flight test

In fact there are a number of open risks, some long-standing and some recently revealed through analysis of deliveries of certification verification products. Parachutes remain a pacing item for certification, integrated software testing is still ongoing, battery sidewall rupture risk has not yet been mitigated although that risk has been accepted for the interim only, not for the long term.

It is imperative that NASA not succumb to pressure, even unconsciously, to get CFT launched without adequately addressing all of the remaining impediments to certification. — ASAP Chair Pat Sanders

For its part, NASA is expressing confidence that Starliner is very close to ready. On March 29 it announced the July 21 launch date target saying it “provides NASA and Boeing the necessary time to complete subsystem verification testing and close out test flight certification products and aligns with the space station manifest and range launch opportunities.”

Now, two months later, ASAP is not convinced. In fact, it wants NASA to “step back” and take a “measured look” with an independent review of the work that needs to be completed.

Given the number of remaining challenges to certification of Starliner, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and take a measured look at the remaining body of work with respect to flying CFT, and to consider seriously having an independent team, perhaps the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, to take a deep look at the items on the path to closure. — Pat Sanders

The NASA Engineering & Safety Center, NESC, at NASA’s Langley Research Center was established by NASA in 2003 at the recommendation of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that determined the cause of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy that killed all seven astronauts aboard. NESC’s job is to perform “independent testing, analysis and assessments of NASA’s high-risk projects to ensure safety and mission success.”

ASAP itself was created in response to a human spaceflight tragedy, Apollo 1 in 1967. Congress established ASAP in the 1968 NASA Authorization Act as a panel of outside experts to advise NASA on safety issues at the agency. Sanders has chaired ASAP since 2016. She retired from the government in 2008 after a 34-year career primarily at DOD including as director of Test, Systems Engineering and Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and executive director of the Missile Defense Agency. Other ASAP members include former astronauts Lt. Gen. Susan Helms (Ret.) and Kent Rominger, and former NASA flight director Paul Hill.

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