NASA’s Final Investigation Into Boeing’s Starliner Flight Finds More Issues

​NASA has announced that it concluded its ‘close-call’ inquiry into Boeing‘s failed first test flight of a Starliner crew capsule. The space agency allegedly found more than 80 issues with the vehicle that needs to be addressed before it repeats the flight.

The commercial crew capsule, which Boeing built for NASA to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS)performed its orbital uncrewed launch in December, lifting off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, the spacecraft failed to get to the space station because of numerous glitches and software issues, an independent investigation team found.

Earlier this year, a NASA examination of the flawed test flight found 61 ‘corrective actions’ for Boeing to fix on Starliner. On Tuesday, July 7th, 2020, the space agency announced that the number of issues has increased by another 19 corrections, which makes a total of 80 after a second investigation.

Starliner to Fly Again After Addressing the Issues

The announcement was made in a teleconference update with reporters on the test flight, named Orbital Flight Test 1 (OFT-1), as Boeing is getting ready for a second change mission, OFT-2, later this year.

Boeing revealed back in April that it will carry out a second unmanned flight test with Starliner to prove that the spacecraft is safe and dependable before any astronauts are transported in it to space. Still, a launch date for that OFT-2 expedition has not been announced yet. Nevertheless, the flight is probably going to happen ‘toward the latter part of this year,’ Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in the teleconference.

“Today, we’re sort of turning the page a bit from the investigation phase of OFT and moving into our hardware development,” Stich said. “The spacecraft is coming along very well.”

Boeing’s first CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on the ground shortly after landing on December 22nd, 2019. [Image: Bill Ingalls/NASA]
In February and March, NASA and Boeing unveiled the findings of separate reviews into two serious anomalies that made the OFT mission fail. First, Starliner’s onboard timer showed an incorrect time from the Atlas V rocket immediately after it launched, and therefore, the vehicle did not perform the orbit insertion burn required to reach the orbiting lab.

The second major issue was a valve-mapping error with the software that manages Starliner’s thrusters, which could have led to an in-space clash.

Both space companies have announced this week that they have now also completed a separate investigation into a third serious issue, which caused the communications between Starliner and the ground control teams to halt for a while during the launch. That brief glitch left the mission control team unable to manually command Starliner to perform the orbit insertion burn after the onboard timer error stopped it from happening automatically.

“As we started to look at the data from the flight and why we didn’t get a good forward communication link with a spacecraft, what we found was that the system perhaps allowed a little bit too big of a band of frequencies to come into the transceiver itself,” Stitch said.

“What Boeing has done to fix that and mitigate that problem is actually installing a filter, which essentially only allows the receiver to listen to a very narrow band of frequencies with the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite,” he added.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft undergoing inspection after its Orbital Flight Test mission in December 2019. [Image credit: Frank Michaux/NASA]
While examining the first two flaws earlier this year, the NASA-Boeing investigation team came up with the previous list of 61 corrective actions to take before Starliner can be launched again.

The List Grew to 80 Recommendations

However, with the recent completion of the review into the communications issue, along with what NASA refers to as ‘high-visibility close call’ investigation, that list has now grown to 80 recommendations, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, said.

NASA and Boeing have not released to the public the complete list of the recommendations due to ‘concerns over releasing proprietary data,’ Leuders said. However, NASA did reveal a list of categories and numbers of recommendations in a statement.

Out of the recommendations, 35 concerned the process and operational enhancements, 21 of them related to testing and simulations, 17 deal with software updates and requirements, and 7 are in a category that includes hardware changes and other organizational balances.

The high-visibility close call examination was performed in order to ‘to specifically review the organizational factors within NASA and Boeing that could have contributed to the flight test anomalies,‘ NASA officials said in the statement.

“The close call investigation team, established in March, was tasked with developing recommendations that could be used to prevent similar close calls from occurring in the future,” the statement continued.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator concluded: “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.”

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