NASA finds Boeing Starliner not fully tested

Boeing’s Starliner manned spacecraft had problems during an unmanned test flight, failing to dock with the International Space Station and returning to Earth early. NASA’s security advisory team found during the investigation that Boeing did not conduct a full test before the ship’s test flight.

NASA finds Boeing Starliner not fully tested

File: Boeing and NASA crews work around the StarLiner spacecraft shortly after it lands in White Sands, New Mexico, in December 2019. On February 7, 2020, NASA announced that the spacecraft’s software was defective.

Since the failure of the Interstellar-line spacecraft demonstration, developed by Boeing, investigations have raised questions about the company’s testing procedures prior to the demonstration mission, placing safety issues at the center of future developments in manned space flight.

NASA is about to send astronauts into space again from the Continental United States, nearly a decade after the last time. But NASA’s approach this time is to work with commercial companies that play a leading role in key decisions for manned flights, some of which appear to be coming to the attention of security experts.

Boeing and NASA officials are expected to release the results of an independent investigation next week. The investigation was aimed at a series of problems that occurred when Boeing conducted unmanned flight tests of its Interstellar manned spacecraft in late December. But in an interview, members of NASA’s security advisory panel talked about some of Boeing’s test decisions that raised questions about the star-line spacecraft’s readiness for manned flights.

Crucially, the security advisory panel was informed earlier this month that Boeing did not conduct a complete end-to-end integration test of the Interstellar Line spacecraft at the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V Rocket Systems Integration Laboratory. The test typically shows how all software systems of each component of a task respond to each other in each maneuver, and testing helps to identify problems that Boeing later encounters in the task.

“It’s exhaustive. You have to do that,” said Christopher Saindon, a former member of the panel who ended his term in mid-February. “It surprised the group a little bit. Of course, there must be a vulnerability in the test protocol. “

On December 20, Boeing’s Interstellar spacecraft was launched, but software problems arose while on a docking mission to the International Space Station. It is reported that the spacecraft’s internal clock advanced 11 hours, resulting in missed a series of key operations and into the wrong orbit. Subsequently, communication problems caused by the base station in the area prevented Boeing from sending a command for the spacecraft to change track. In the end, Boeing concluded that the Starline spacecraft would not be able to reach the space station.

But in the process of bringing the spacecraft back to earth and re-examining the software, Boeing also found another problem with the craft, which could cause the return module to collide with the service module after it separated. Fortunately, the control team had corrected the problem before returning to the ground on 22 December local time. But the ship’s spate of problems led NASA to call for a full review of Boeing’s software, a process that required analysis of about a million lines of code.

Software problems are also plaguing another part of Boeing. The department is dealing with a crash on a Boeing 737 Max. The accident killed 346 people and grounded the Boeing 737 Max.

But Mr. Seinden added, “That doesn’t mean it’s not a business, is it? They’re trying to be efficient and economical.” “

Boeing says it followed all of nasa’s test procedures before the Interstellar Line spacecraft was tested. Prior to the mission, NASA reviewed Boeing’s flight readiness and approved its continued mission.

Earlier this month, John Mulholland, vice president and project manager of Boeing’s Commercial Astronaut Program, said in an interview that teams check different parameters through a series of integrated tests before the Starline spacecraft enters formal qualification tests. He did not specifically address the full end-to-end system integration testing that the security advisory team was concerned about.

“When we review our software validation process, we review the end-to-end process. Obviously, at least these two software problems go through the process used to detect and correct the problem. “So we’re working on each workflow and finding ways to make the software more robust, ” says Mr Mulholland. “

George Nield, a member of the security advisory panel and a former deputy director of commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, said that because of the commercial nature of NASA’s manned space program, Suppliers have more flexibility in deciding how to test equipment. All NASA does is approve test certification that is valid or more demanding.

“Testing software in a real-world environment can be challenging (and can be expensive),” Neeld said. “”…… You always want to test computer software connected to all the real hardware, but the problem is that if the software is used to control the system during a launch or space flight, you can’t test the reality on the ground at all. “

The security advisory team wants to find out as soon as possible why Boeing decided to skip full end-to-end integration testing. Until then, experts could only guess about the possible impact of the star-line spacecraft when it begins its launch.

“Because two obvious problems (in space flight) are on the system interface, we speculate that there are some flaws in integration testing,” said Don McLean, former director of aerodynamics, mechanical engineering and industrial design at L-3 Technologies Integration and a member of the panel. said. “The reason for this defect is one of the ongoing investigations by NASA’s independent review team. “

Seinden said the security advisory panel’s advice to NASA is to “study it carefully now” and to be “more involved” in the testing process of the commercial astronaut program suppliers. The spacecraft, developed by Boeing and SpaceX, a space exploration technology company, will carry astronauts on a test flight without an unmanned test.

Boeing initially received $4.2 billion to complete the project, compared with $2.6 billion for SpaceX. SpaceX’s unmanned test flight in March 2019 was successful and did not show any major problems. SpaceX is expected to test the manned Dragon spacecraft with astronauts later this year.

Because of the problems Boeing encountered during the unmanned test flight, it is unclear whether the company will repeat the unmanned flight tests of the Starline spacecraft.

“If you decide that you’re going to have a manned flight next time, you have to work very hard to review the software and make sure that all the integration tests are complete,” Seinden said. “

Boeing said on a fourth-quarter earnings conference call at the end of January that it had set aside $410 million to prevent the Starliner from conducting another unmanned test flight.