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Boeing said Thursday it was delaying its first crewed flight of Starliner, which had been scheduled for July 21, because of parachute and wire harness tape problems. (credit: Boeing/John Grant)

Whither Starliner?

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The gaping chasm between the two companies NASA selected nearly nine years ago to develop commercial crew vehicles was clearly illustrated last week.

On Tuesday, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station and, 12 hours later, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico. On board were four private astronauts who had completed Ax-2, the second mission by Axiom Space to the station. The four people included two Saudi astronauts and an American businessman, commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who added to her American record for the most time in space.

“It is imperative that NASA not succumb to pressure, even unconsciously, to get CFT launched without adequately addressing all the remaining impediments to certification,” said ASAP chair Sanders.

The Ax-2 undocking and splashdown took place three years to the day after the launch of the first crewed SpaceX mission, Demo-2 (see “A shaky ride to a smooth launch”, The Space Review, June 1, 2020). This was the tenth launch, and ninth splashdown, of a crewed Dragon spacecraft (the Crew Dragon for NASA’s Crew-6 mission is still at the ISS), with two or three more slated to launch before the end of the year.

While some would argue that human spaceflight is not yet routine, SpaceX is making strides towards that goal. At a briefing last Thursday about upcoming space station spacewalks, Dina Contella, NASA ISS operations integration manager, praised SpaceX and Axiom Space for a “highly successful mission” that went smoothly.

A few hours after that briefing, NASA and its other commercial crew partner, Boeing, delivered bad news. The first crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, called the Crew Flight Test (CFT) and scheduled for as soon as July 21, would be delayed indefinitely after reviews found two issues with the spacecraft that had the potential to require significant work to address.

“Boeing unanimously decided that this is something that we needed to correct,” Mark Nappi, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for Starliner, said at a briefing called on a little more than an hour’s notice. “We decided to stand down the preparations for the CFT mission in order to correct the problems.”

One of the problems was with a component in the parachutes called soft links. Nappi said data from tests of those components may have been recorded incorrectly. When the soft links were retested, they failed at a lower limit than expected. That, in turn, lowered the factor of safety of the overall parachute system “pretty significantly.”

The second involved tape used to wrap wire harnesses in the spacecraft to prevent chafing. The adhesive in that tape is flammable, he said. That tape is used “quite extensively” in the spacecraft and could require considerable work to address: “We’ll determine how much the vehicle needs to be disassembled, if any, to address these issues.”

Up until a week earlier, the CFT mission appeared to be on track for a July launch. NASA and Boeing set that date in March after concluding they needed more time to complete certification work for the mission, which will fly NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the ISS for a brief stay. In the weeks since, NASA officials had stuck to that date, indicating that work was remaining on schedule for a July 21 launch, in a relatively narrow window before a Crew Dragon mission to rotate ISS crews in August.

The first public sign of problems with those plans came during a May 25 meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). During the public portion of the meeting, ASAP chair Patricia Sanders expressed strong doubts that Starliner would be ready to launch in July.

“There remains a long line of NASA processes still ahead to determine launch readiness” for CFT, she said. “It is imperative that NASA not succumb to pressure, even unconsciously, to get CFT launched without adequately addressing all the remaining impediments to certification.”

She specifically cited work on parachute certification, which she called the “pacing item” for the launch, as well as ongoing software testing and issues with spacecraft batteries that could suffered a “sidewall rupture.”

“We’ve been talking about the future of Starliner and how we’re going to move forward,” said Boeing’s Nappi, adding the company was still committed to the spacecraft.

Sanders suggested it was time for NASA to stop and review progress on Starliner. “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,” she said. Specifically, she called on the agency to bring in outside help, like the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), “to take a deep look at the items on the path to closure.”

The next day—just before 5 pm Eastern on the Friday of a holiday weekend—NASA and Boeing released an update, which they said came from a “checkpoint review” held the same day as the ASAP meeting. They said they were making good progress on CFT, which they said remained scheduled for no earlier than July 21.

“If you look back two months ago at the work we had ahead of us, it’s almost all complete,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, in that statement. “The combined team is resilient and resolute in their goal of flying crew on Starliner as soon as it is safe to do so.”

However, that statement acknowledged “emerging issues that need a path to closure” before proceeding with a launch. That included the parachute and wire tape issues that Boeing would cite less than a week later, as well as a valve in a thermal control system that needed to be replaced.

Nappi, in the briefing last week to announce the CFT delay, said that the parachute and wire tape issues were only a “couple of days old” at that review the previous week, and engineers had spent several days studying them. The decision to delay the launch, he said, went up through the entire Boeing leadership to CEO Dave Calhoun, and was communicated to both the Boeing and NASA workforces earlier in the day. (At the ISS spacewalk briefing a few hours earlier, NASA’s Contella gave no hint of a delay in CFT.)

Stich said that NASA supported Boeing’s decision to delay CFT. “We applaud Mark for deciding to stand down and we support that decision 100%,” he said at the briefing.

It was unclear how long CFT might be delayed. Nappi said engineers needed about a week to review the problems and put together schedules to correct them. Asked at one point if a CFT launch before the end of the year was feasible, he agreed, but again said it was too soon to estimate a revised launch date.

The fact that the problems were discovered just a couple months before a crewed launch raised questions about Boeing’s work on Starliner and NASA’s oversight of it. Stich said the wiring tape and the parachute soft links were flown on Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 uncrewed test flight a year without incident. “It was through the flight certification process were we went in and were looking at the system in more detail” that engineers found the issues.

Nappi noted that the issues would have required “multiple failures” to become a threat to safety; in the case of the parachutes, it would require one of the three main parachutes to not open, putting higher loads on the other two.

Crew Dragon
Recovery crews prepare to bring a Crew Dragon spacecraft onto a ship after a May 30 splashdown to conclude the Ax-2 mission. (credit: SpaceX)

The overall Starliner effort has suffered multiple problems over the years, beyond the schedule delays endemic to aerospace projects. That included serious issues on the original OFT uncrewed flight in December 2019 that truncated the mission and kept it from docking with the ISS (see “The year of commercial crew comes to an end, without crew”, The Space Review, December 23, 2019), followed by a corroded valves in the Starliner service module, discovered on the day of the OFT-2 launch attempt in August 2021 that ended up delaying the mission until May 2022 (see “Starliner sidelined”, The Space Review, August 16, 2021).

Those problems have been costly to Boeing, working under a fixed-price contract with NASA. As of October 2022, Boeing had recorded $883 million in charges related to Starliner in regulatory filings. Nappi said in the call last week it was too soon to determine what additional charges to earnings might result from these latest problems.

That’s prompted speculation about whether Boeing might simply walk away from Starliner. Nappi, at one point, appeared to suggest as much in the call. “We’ve been talking about the future of Starliner and how we’re going to move forward. Those discussions are going well.”

He later clarified that those “future of Starliner” discussions didn’t involve the fate of Starliner. Instead, those discussions involve potentially building an additional crew module to meet demand and what launch vehicle to use once it runs out of Atlas 5 rockets. “We’re still committed,” he said.

When asked if there had been any discussions inside about Boeing about dropping Starliner, he responded, “No, not serious discussions about that.”

However, even those long-term discussions have implications for the future of Starliner. Boeing has secured Atlas 5 launch vehicles for its first six post-certification, or operational, missions, with the first currently scheduled for the second half of 2024. With NASA planning to alternate between Starliner and Crew Dragon once Starliner is certified, it would take being through the end of the 2020s, with the ISS currently set for retirement in 2030.

Assuming that United Launch Alliance will continue to support Atlas 5 that long—it will have long since flown the other remaining vehicles for other customers as it shifts to the Vulcan—it will need to find a new vehicle for Starliner missions to commercial space stations or other applications (Boeing is a partner on the Orbital Reef space station project led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space.) But if Boeing decides not to find a replacement for Atlas, that will end the Starliner program after its final ISS mission for NASA.

NASA is more concerned in the near term to just get Starliner in service, providing redundancy should something happen to Crew Dragon. “From the NASA side, there is an unwavering commitment to Starliner and having a second crew transportation system,” Stich said. “NASA desperately needs a second provider for crew transportation.”

““I’ve seen a tremendous change in the Boeing culture” since OFT, Stich said when asked about Boeing’s safety culture.

He added that NASA welcomed ASAP’s call for a review of Starliner. NASA would implement it not through a standalone panel but through NESC engineers embedded in various parts of the program. Those individuals would report to a panel chaired by NASA’s Office of the Chief Engineer.

That process, he said, is used on other flight projects, providing an independent line of communications that goes up to Bob Cabana, the agency’s associate administrator. “That’s what we plan to use to fulfill what the ASAP is requesting, which I think is an excellent request.”

Stich went out of his way to praise the progress Boeing had made after earlier setbacks like the original OFT mission. “I’ve seen a tremendous change in the Boeing culture” since OFT, he said when asked about Boeing’s safety culture.

“The work that we have been doing to get up to crewed flight has been very thorough and comprehensive,” he said, suggesting the problems being found now had their roots in design decisions made years ago.

“My view is that the safety culture has always been strong,” Boeing’s Nappi said moments later. “I think the safety culture is strong, has been strong.”

“It could be questionable if we should be catching these types of things this late,” he acknowledged. “That might be that there was a certain sense of optimism when some of the designs were done, some of the processes were created many years ago.”

“Optimism” is a word not frequently associated now with Starliner, with both the agency and the company now focused on just getting the vehicle safely flying and being able to do its set of contracted ISS missions.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is getting ready to fly NASA’s Crew-7 mission, its 11th Crew Dragon launch, currently scheduled for mid-August.

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