NASA and Boeing complete investigation into failed “Starjet” launch

An independent review panel has completed an investigation into the failed launch of NASA and Boeing’s Starliner in December,media reported. NASA made a total of 80 recommendations for future missions, covering multiple categories, and the two organizations conducted their own internal investigations.

On December 20, 2019, the Starliner conducted an unmanned test flight. It was supposed to dock with the International Space Station shortly after launch, but after a malfunction, it ended up in the wrong orbit. Two days later, the Mission Control Center safely returned it to Earth. To find out what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future, NASA and Boeing formed a joint independent review team. Specifically, they identified three major anomalies that led to the failure, including two software failures and a communication outage.

The investigation into the two software issues was completed earlier this year and the review team has now completed its investigation into the third issue. The review team found that the space-to-ground communication link was intermittently interrupted, which prevented mission control from correcting software errors mid-flight. As a result, the review team reported 80 recommendations for corrective and preventive action for Boeing and NASA. For corporate-sensitive reasons, the complete list is confidential, but at least the categories to which they belong have been made public.

Of these recommendations, 21 relate to testing and simulation. This includes more detailed testing of how software and hardware are integrated and a complete “run record” test before each flight. There are also 10 recommendations requiring a reassessment of software requirements, 35 recommendations to update documentation and internal review processes, 7 related to updating software code, and 7 recommendations to change the security reporting structure and add an external RF frequency to reduce interference.

NASA has also conducted its own “dangerous” investigation into organizational factors at NASA and Boeing that may have played a role in unusual circumstances. The team recommended that NASA work closely with its contractors to ensure that plans and tests are properly validated in advance and that a best practice document be developed for future use.

“NASA and Boeing have done a lot of work to review the problems encountered during the unmanned flight testofon of the Starplane,” NASA Deputy Administrator Steve Jurczyk said. “Ultimately, everything we find will help us improve in advancing the development and testing of starliners and in future collaborations with the entire business industry.”

Boeing has promised that the “Starjet” will be re-launched at the company’s expense to prove that the mission is still viable. The timing of the relaunch and its impact on the final crew mission have not yet been announced.