Design problems for Starliner

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In the heat of competition: Boeing is working to correct two serious design problems that cropped up during the construction of its Starliner manned capsule.

First the thing was weighing too much:

One issue involved the mass of the crew capsule, which outgrew the lift capability of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket selected to put it into orbit. The CST-100 Starliner will ride an Atlas 5 rocket with two solid rocket boosters and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage, and although Boeing and ULA engineers considered adding a third strap-on motor to compensate for the capsule’s extra weight, managers now have the spacecraft back under its mass allowance, Ferguson said.

Second, the capsule has a shape problem:

Ferguson said Boeing has a model of the Atlas 5 rocket and CST-100 Starliner in a wind tunnel to verify a change to capsule’s outer shape devised to overcome higher-than-expected aerodynamic launch loads discovered in testing. “They had one issue, a non-linear aerodynamic loads issue, where they were getting some high acoustic loads right behind the spacecraft,” said Phil McAlister, head of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development office in Washington.

Something here is rotten. It seems to me that Boeing shouldn’t be having these very basic problems right off the bat. In the past, under the older cost-plus contracts NASA used to routinely hand out, these kinds of problems would simply have meant that Boeing would have gotten more money from NASA, This time, however the contract is fixed-price. If Boeing has problems or delays, the company will have to bear the cost, not NASA. I suspect these problems might have occurred because of some cultural laziness at Boeing. Their management is used to not having to eat the cost of these kinds of mistakes. Now, they will. I expect the culture to therefore begin changing.


  • Kirk

    I didn’t know it was set to fly on a 422 (or x22 or whatever — do we know what designation ULA will use for this fairingling less configuration?). Atlas V has not yet flown with a dual-engine Centaur upper stage. Was the last DEC flown the one on the Feb 2005 Atlas IIIB launch of NROL-23?

  • Weight growth is a common problem with spacecraft development. Especially crew systems. It’s not unique to Boeing. SpaceShipTwo came in heavier than planned. So did Lynx. And I’m pretty sure there was weight growth on all of NASA’s past and current human space vehicles.

    They’re adapting a rocket not specifically designed to carry a capsule. You are bound to run into issues with that during testing. This is why they test.

  • Doug: Generally you are correct, but I must note that neither SpaceX nor Orbital ATK had this problem when they were designing and building Dragon and Cygnus respectively. Both were on fixed-price contracts.

    I think that some of that old cost-plus culture at Boeing played a role in these issues. Cost-plus allows for laziness by engineers and management, because they know NASA will cover the costs if they get a little ambitions in their design and allow for too much weight growth, and have to redesign. Boeing’s Starliner contract might be fixed-price, but the company has been building things for NASA under cost-plus for decades. A corporate culture won’t change overnight.

    By the way, I liked your article on Parabolic Arc that raised questions about Virgin Galactic’s FAA flight permit. One question I tried to post to your site but couldn’t get past the registration process is this: Under what permit rules is Blue Origin flying its New Shepard? Is that also a experimental permit or a flight permit?

  • Alex

    Mr. Zimmerman: I learned elsewhere that also SpaceX’s Dragon become heavier during development as planned, which resulted in reduced payload capability. However, I cannot reconstruct the source, may be Mr. Messier may help.

  • Robert: The first Dragon spacecraft sent to the station under CRS-1 were overweight and their Falcon 9 boosters less powerful than originally planned. The weight of the cargo sent on those first two flights were well below planned capacity. It put SpaceX behind on the cargo it was supposed to deliver under its CRS-1 contract. Those under mass flights and the loss of a Dragon resulted in NASA buying two additional Dragon supply missions from SpaceX to meet the upmass requirement.

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