SLS core stage static fire test aborts after only one minute

During the crucial first static fire test of SLS’s core stage yesterday — meant to last a full eight minutes — the booster aborted the test after only one minute.

It’s still too early to know exactly what caused the early shutdown in Saturday’s engine test.

Flight controllers could be heard during the test referring to an “MCF” (a major component failure) apparently related to engine No. 4 on the SLS booster. John Honeycutt, NASA’s SLS program manager, added that at about the 60-second mark, cameras caught a flash in a protective thermal blanket on the engine, though its cause and significance remain to be determined.

Honeycutt said it’s too early to know if a second hot-fire test will be required at Stennis, or if it can be done later at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the SLS is scheduled to launch the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon by the end of this year. Similarly, it’s too early to know if Artemis 1 will still be able to launch this year. “I think it’s still too early to tell,” Bridenstine said of whether a 2021 launch for Artemis 1 is still in the cards. “As we figure out what went wrong, we’re going to know kind of what the future holds.” [emphasis mine]

If this engine abort had occurred during a launch, with the two strap-on solid rocket boosters still firing (and no way to turn them off), the entire rocket would have been lost. Thus, for NASA to even consider shipping this core stage to Florida before figuring out the problem and fixing it is downright insane.

They need to figure out what went wrong, fix it, and then test again, even if if means the first unmanned Artemis flight experiences a serious delay. If they don’t then this whole program is proved to be an idiotic sham (something I have believed for about a decade), and should be shut down by Congress and the new President, immediately.

I am reporting this late because this weekend I was out in the country on a caving trip, taking a very much needed break from the truly horrible news of modern America.

Another SLS core stage abort during dress rehearsal

NASA today revealed that engineers were forced on December 20th to abort at about T-5 minutes their second attempt to do a fueled dress rehearsal countdown in preparation for the full core stage static fire test.

[S]ources said the terminal countdown started at T-10 minutes and counting and ran down to T-4 minutes and 40 seconds where an unplanned hold occurred. … The criteria for how long it should take for a liquid hydrogen replenish valve to close was violated at that point in the countdown when the valve was commanded to the close position as a part of the process to pressurize the liquid hydrogen tank for engine firing. After holding at the T-4:40 point for a few minutes, teams decided the terminal countdown test couldn’t continue.

Vehicle safing and recycle sequences were then executed.

Although the countdown ran for over half of its intended duration, the early cutoff left several major milestones untested. With the countdown aborted at that point, the stage’s propellant tanks weren’t fully pressurized, the hydraulic Core Stage Auxiliary Power Units (CAPUs) were never started, the final RS-25 engine purge sequence was never run, and the vehicle power transfer didn’t occur.

NASA management is debating now whether they can proceed directly to the full core stage static fire test, where the core stage engine will fire for the full duration of a normal launch. It could be that they will decide to waive testing what was not tested on this last dress rehearsal.

If they delay the full test to do another dress rehearsal, they risk causing a delay in the fall launch of SLS, as they need a lot of time to disassemble, ship, and reassembly the stage in Florida. If they don’t delay, they risk either a failure during the full static fire test, or (even worse) a failure during that first launch.

Considering the number of nagging problems that have plagued this test program, it seems foolish to me to bypass any testing. They not only do not have enough data to really understand how to fuel the core stage reliably, they don’t even have a lot of practice doing the countdown itself. All this bodes ill when they try to launch later this year, especially if they decide to not work the kinks out now.

Boeing and NASA delay again the 2nd unmanned demo flight of Starliner

Boeing and NASA yesterday announced that they now plan to fly the second unmanned demo flight of Starliner in late March, rather in January as last scheduled.

Though there have been hints for awhile that a launch close to the start of the new year was no longer likely, this announcement confirms those hints. This means that it will have taken Boeing more than a year to fix the software issues that forced the first demo mission to abort its docking with ISS and come back early.

Whether this will delay the manned mission, which they are still targeting for as early as the summer of ’21, remains unclear. I think it will all depend on how well that the demo mission goes.

1st countdown dress rehearsal of SLS core stage scrubbed

The attempt by NASA to conduct a full countdown dress rehearsal of the SLS core stage, including loading its tanks, was scrubbed early in the countdown yesterday when engineers encountered problems loading oxygen into the rocket’s tanks.

An issue with the LOX chilldown process run on Monday meant that the LOX propellant tank couldn’t be filled, which meant that the full WDR test wasn’t possible.

NASA’s post-scrub statement indicated the vehicle systems performed well and that the Core Stage engineering community and the test team at Stennis were working on fixes and determining when the tanking and countdown demonstration parts of the WDR test can be retried.

This dress rehearsal is intended to preparatory to what NASA dubs the Green Run test static fire of the core stage, set to last for the full 500 seconds the core stage would fire during an actual launch. Whether this scrub will prevent that Green Run test from occurring before the end of the year remains unclear. Either way it must happen soon if NASA is to maintain its schedule for the long frequently delayed launch of SLS, now scheduled for November ’21.

Boeing hires former SpaceX software engineer

Capitalism in space: Boeing has hired a former SpaceX software engineer to head software development for the company.

Boeing on Friday announced it hired Jinnah Hosein as vice president of software engineering, a new role at the aerospace giant. The job will lead a centralized organization of engineers developing software across Boeing’s portfolio of products. Hosein will report to Greg Hyslop, Boeing chief engineer and senior vice president of engineering, test and technology.

…Hosein’s resume reads like a defense industry wish list of Silicon Valley stops. He worked as Google’s director of software engineering for cloud networking, helped design Tesla’s autopilot software and most recently worked as software lead for self-driving startup Aurora.

But it’s his experiences at SpaceX — where he was key to software development for the Falcon, Falcon Heavy, Dragon and Crew Dragon vehicles — that Boeing may look to draw from the most. Boeing and SpaceX have fiercely competed over NASA’s manned space programs, and SpaceX is a competitor for military space launches against the United Launch Alliance, which is co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Since software was the main issue that grounded Boeing’s 737-Max airplane as well as caused the serious problems on the first unmanned demo flight of the company’s Starliner capsule, this hire appears to be aimed at fixing these software issues. In both cases the management philosophy behind developing and testing software was very flawed, leaving the product saddled with software that either didn’t work properly or was not tested properly in development.

I imagine Boeing’s top management is hoping Hosein can bring to Boeing some of the agile, focused, and very successful management style found at SpaceX.

Europa Clipper to be delayed because of SLS bottleneck

Because Boeing will be unable to provide an SLS rocket in time for the planned 2024 launch of Europa Clipper, once the probe is completed NASA will be forced to put it in storage.

The problem is that Congress has mandated that the Jupiter probe be launched on SLS, but has only funded the first two Artemis launches to the Moon. Boeing will also need at least three years to build it, meaning that even if the money from Congress appeared today, it would likely not be ready for its ’24 launch date.

In terms of rocket science, right now, Europa Clipper can launch on a commercial vehicle, like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance’s Delta-IV Heavy rocket, although the mission would then need a longer cruise time to reach its destination.

But in terms of the law, NASA’s hands are tied.

“Because of that, we’re planning to build the Europa Clipper and then put it into storage, because we’re not going to have an SLS rocket available until 2025,” Bridenstine said. “That’s the current plan. I don’t think that’s the right plan, but we’re going to follow the law.”

Though the common sense thing for Congress to do would be to release NASA from this mandate and allow the agency to pick the launch rocket, do not expect that to happen. Congress wants SLS because of all the pork it produces. They will not allow NASA to reduce its reliance on SLS one iota, if they can. Unless pressured publicly (which I think is NASA’s goal with this announcement), Congress will let Europa Clipper sit in a warehouse for years, at a cost of between $36 to $60 million per year, waiting for SLS.

Starliner Commander steps down from first manned mission

Capitalism in space: Boeing’s company astronaut chosen to command the first manned mission of its Starliner capsule has stepped down because the flight would prevent him from attending his daughter’s wedding next year.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, Ferguson said it was a difficult decision, but “next year is very important for my family.” He said he has several commitments “which I simply cannot risk missing.” A Boeing spokeswoman confirmed one is his daughter’s wedding. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just not going into space next year,” Ferguson said. He stressed that he remains committed to the Starliner program and will continue to work for Boeing.

This is the second crew change for this mission. Earlier NASA astronaut Eric Boe had had to back out due to medical reasons.

Assuming the second unmanned Starliner demo mission scheduled for the December-January timeframe succeeds, the first manned mission will happen in June ’21, and last anywhere from two weeks to six months.

Next Starship test flight to go to 60,000 feet

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has decided, after two successful 500 foot hops using its fifth and sixth Starship prototypes, to forego further hops with those prototypes and instead test fly prototype number eight to a height of 60,000 feet, about 11 miles.

Starship SN5 and SN6 were set to become a tag-team, flying 150-meter hops to refine the launch and landing techniques that SpaceX has pioneered with its Falcon 9 rocket. However, with SN5’s hop proving to be a success, followed by a notable improvement with SN6’s leap to 150 meters a few weeks later, it’s likely SpaceX is now confident of advancing to the next milestone.

The company has applied for an FCC license to do the flight anytime from Oct ’20 to April ’21, with October 11th being the first available date.

In the meantime the company plans a pressure tank test to failure of prototype #7, probably later this week.

In other related news at the second link, Boeing and Firefly have also applied for FCC licenses, the former for a Starliner demo mission from November ’20 to May ’21, the latter for its first launch of its smallsat Alpha rocket, also from November ’20 to May ’21.

Boeing strikes deal to avoid harsher ethics probe in NASA’s lunar lander scandal

Boeing has struck a deal with both NASA and the Air Force in order to avoid a harsher and more extensive ethics probe into its part in the NASA lunar lander contract bidding scandal.

The agreement, signed in August, comes as federal prosecutors continue a criminal investigation into whether NASA’s former human exploration chief, Doug Loverro, improperly guided Boeing space executive Jim Chilton during the contract bidding process.

By agreeing to the “Compliance Program Enhancements”, the aerospace heavyweight staves off harsher consequences from NASA and the Air Force – its space division’s top customers – such as being suspended or debarred from bidding on future space contracts. The agreement calls for Boeing to pay a “third party expert” to assess its ethics and compliance programs and review training procedures for executives who liaise with government officials, citing “concerns related to procurement integrity” during NASA’s Human Landing System competition.

Since Loverro resigned in May, Boeing has fired one company attorney and a group of mid-level employees, three people familiar with the actions told Reuters.

The deal seems like a bureaucratic whitewash, designed to take the heat off the company. And since Boeing as a company has many problems, I remain skeptical that any of this will make a difference in getting things fixed.

Boeing’s CEO vows to hire based on race, not qualifications

The coming dark age: Boeing’s CEO today vowed to raise the number of blacks working at the company by 20%, apparently with no regard to qualifications.

Boeing is seeking to increase black US employees throughout the company by 20 percent and mandate benchmarks for hiring people of color, Chief Executive Dave Calhoun told employees in a memo on Friday reviewed by Reuters.

…The changes at Boeing, a stalwart defense contractor with its corporate headquarters in Chicago and largest factories in Washington state and South Carolina, appeared to mark the first concrete steps by the planemaker to address the issue. “We understand we have work to do,” Calhoun said in the memo, which was released on the 57th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and included references to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin on Sunday.

Boeing declined to provide its current number of black employees or a timeline for the new target.

The planemaker separately has had to lay off thousands of workers as it grapples with the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the 17-month-old grounding of the 737 MAX after two fatal crashes.

In the memo, Calhoun said the company would establish an internal Racial Justice think-tank to guide its policies.

As a company, Boeing’s bad performance in almost every area in the last year is bad enough. If they are going to lay off thousands and then replace some with workers based merely on racial quotas the company’s future will be worse, since their ability to produce quality airplanes and spacecraft is certain to go down.

And for those hate-mongers who will immediately try to accuse me of saying blacks are not as smart, go to hell. The goal should be to hire the best, instead of members of a specific race. If you favor one race over another you simply prove yourself to be a bigot, as this company’s CEO is now amply doing.

I also hope a lot of fired Boeing employees sue Boeing for racial discrimination.

NASA/Boeing set summer ’21 for first manned Starliner mission

Capitalism in space: NASA and Boeing have tentatively scheduled the launch of the first manned Starliner mission to ISS for the summer of 2021.

Boeing Co said on Tuesday it aims to redo its unmanned Starliner crew capsule flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) in December or January, depending on when it completes software and test hardware production development.

If the test mission is successful, Boeing and NASA will fly Starliner’s first crewed mission in summer 2021, with a post-certification mission roughly scheduled for the following winter, the company added.

Everything of course depends on the success of the unmanned demo flight. If the capsule has any further problems, as it did on its first unmanned demo flight, the manned flight will likely be delayed again.

Criminal investigation begun against former NASA manned program head

The U.S. Attorney’s office for DC has opened a criminal investigation into actions taken by Doug Loverro, the former head of NASA’s manned program, during contract bidding for a NASA lunar lander project.

The grand jury investigation concerns communications between Doug Loverro, then the chief of human spaceflight for NASA, and Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s space and launch division. These discussions occurred early this year, during a blackout period when NASA was taking bids to construct a Human Landing System for the Artemis Moon Program. It is not permissible to interfere with a competition for government contracts.

“Mr. Loverro, who wasn’t part of NASA’s official contracting staff, informed Mr.Chilton that the Chicago aerospace giant was about to be eliminated from the competition based on cost and technical evaluations,” the report states, citing unidentified sources. “Within days, Boeing submitted a revised proposal.”

The analysis at the link is excellent. Read it all.

British Airways retires 747 fleet

Because of the crash in customer demand due to the Wuhan virus panic, British Airways has abruptly retired its entire fleet of 747s.

This retirement had been planned, as the 747 is expensive to operate. The airline had planned however to phase them out over several years. Now they simply don’t need them, as they are flying so few passengers.

I am fortunate that I got to fly on one in 2019, in a vacation trip to Wales with Diane. This might have been the only time I ever flew on a 747, and it was a remarkably smooth flight, both during take-off and landing. It is sad to see this magnificent American achievement finally leave us.

NASA completes Starliner review, finds more issues

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday released the results of its investigation into the issues that prevented Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule from successfully completing its unmanned demo flight to ISS in December, finding an additional 20 issues over the 61 initially identified shortly after the mission.

In closing out the seven-month investigation, NASA officials said Tuesday they have now identified 80 corrective actions, mostly involving software and testing, that must be done before the Starliner capsule launches again. The previous count was 61.

NASA officials also admitted that they had been so focused on making sure SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was going to work that they became lax in reviewing Boeing’s work. Now they not only are going to focus more on Boeing, they actually want to use SpaceX’s approach to software development throughout NASA.

NASA is also borrowing SpaceX’s “robust” approach to software, which involves going back to the designers following testing for feedback, said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s new human spaceflight chief who until a month ago managed commercial crew. She wants to see more of that type of approach across other NASA programs.

Though it seems absurd and incredible that NASA has not been consulting with its designers after testing, it is also not surprising. When it comes to designing and building anything at NASA the management processes there have routinely done a bad job for many years.

As for Starliner, it is expected it will take a few more months to fix these issues, which means the next unmanned test flight is likely still set for sometime in the fall, with the manned mission to follow next spring.

Boeing’s Starliner aces parachute test

Capitalism in space: Boeing last week successfully completed a Starliner parachute test designed to simulate the return of a capsule after a launch abort.

This is good news for the capsule and Boeing, but I am a bit puzzled why this test, to be followed by a second similar test, was done. These parachutes were supposedly tested thoroughly already, proven, and ready for use for manned missions. Part of that proof was an earlier launch abort test as well as Boeing’s unmanned orbital demo flight that failed to dock with ISS. Both returned to Earth safely using these parachutes. I wonder if during those latter flights they found issues with the parachutes that needed smoothing out by even more tests.

Either way, this success improves the chances that Starliner will finally fly manned early next year, giving the U.S. two different operational manned capsules for getting humans into space.

New technical problems for SLS?

A new GAO report [pdf] issued yesterday has revealed that SLS engineers are concerned that the rocket’s core stage will develop leaks during its first full test, hopefully scheduled for this year.

[T]he new “Assessments of Major NASA Projects” report released on Wednesday contains what seems to be an entirely new bit of information about the Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing for deep space exploration. The report asserts that engineers at NASA and the SLS rocket’s core-stage contractor, Boeing, are concerned about fuel leaks.

Earlier this year, NASA moved the big rocket’s core stage to a test site at Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. Before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted work, NASA and Boeing teams were working toward a critical summer exercise. During this “green run” test, the clamped-down rocket will ignite its engines and burn for about eight minutes to simulate an ascent into orbit.

“Program officials indicated that one of the top remaining technical risks to the green run test is that the core stage may develop leaks when it is filled with fuel,” the report states on page 82. “According to these officials, they have conducted extensive scaled testing of the gaskets and seals used in the core stage; however, it is difficult to precisely predict how this large volume of liquid hydrogen will affect the stage.”

My god, for them to think that the core stage might leak when it is filled with fuel for the first time illustrates the entire bankrupt nature of this entire project. This is why you do tank tests early in the process (as SpaceX has been doing with Starship), so that you don’t get surprised late in the game.

The report also notes further issues with the Orion capsule.

The Orion program plans to reduce the 7-month-long pre-launch processing period by 1.5 months. The program plans to use a mass simulator—instead of the Orion spacecraft—to conduct some prelaunch tests that would otherwise be done after integrating Orion with SLS—providing the program with extra time to complete work before delivering Orion for integration and further testing according to officials. With this shortened process, the program has only 1 week of schedule reserve remaining to the November 2020 launch date, and program officials have said this date will likely be delayed

I must remind everyone that Lockheed Martin got the contract to build Orion in 2005. They have had fifteen years to build this one capsule, and will still deliver it late.

Personally, I hope SLS leaks. If it does, it will force a very long new delay to the program, and very well might finally force Congress and the Trump administration to face reality and cancel it.

Boeing’s fall from grace at NASA

Eric Berger at Ars Technica yesterday uncovered a NASA report that outlined its selection process for awarding a contract for providing cargo to the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station — eventually won by SpaceX — that gave Boeing’s proposal a terrible ranking.

Of the four contenders, [Boeing] had the lowest overall technical and mission suitability scores. In addition, Boeing’s proposal was characterized as “inaccurate” and possessing no “significant strengths.” Boeing also was cited with a “significant weakness” in its proposal for pushing back on providing its software source code.

Due to its high price and ill-suited proposal for the lunar cargo contract, NASA didn’t even consider the proposal among the final bidders. In his assessment late last year, NASA’s acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, wrote, “Since Boeing’s proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.” [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words could possibly be a death sentence for Boeing. The company has numerous other serious problems, including its commercial 737-Max airplane, its KC-46 Pegasus tanker for the Air Force, and of course its SLS rocket for NASA. For NASA to say that it will no longer consider Boeing in future contract bidding, especially since NASA has been one of Boeing’s biggest customers for decades, cannot be good for the company’s already badly suffering bottom line.

Berger also notes how much NASA’s attitude toward Boeing has changed since the agency removed Bill Gerstenmaier as head of its manned space operations. Gerstenmaier had apparently given Boeing the highest marks routinely, and appeared to have lost his ability to look at the company objectively. Moreover, his (and NASA’s) kid-glove treatment of Boeing for decades probably contributed to that company’s sloppy bid on the Lunar Gateway cargo contract. They were likely not used to tough questioning, and didn’t put the proper effort into writing their bid.

For the taxpayer and the American space effort, however, this report is wonderful news. It appears that NASA is breaking its tight and blind partnership with the big space contractors that has for decades handicapped the nation’s ability to get things built in space. These contractors have not been able to deliver, but because of their powerful allies on Congress, NASA has for years kowtowed to them in contract awards.

Now however it appears NASA’s management has become quite willing to reject these powerful companies, despite Congressional backing, in order to get the best deal and the best product, for the nation.

Boeing to do second unmanned test flight of Starliner

Capitalism in space: Boeing officials said yesterday that they now plan a second unmanned demo mission to ISS of their Starliner manned capsule in order to make sure they have cleared up all the issues that plagued the first unmanned flight in December.

The company on Monday confirmed a report in the Washington Post that it will fly a second uncrewed demonstration mission — which Boeing calls an Orbital Flight Test — before astronauts ride a Starliner into orbit.

“We have chosen to refly our Orbital Flight Test to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system,” Boeing said in a statement Monay. “Flying another uncrewed flight will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer. We will then proceed to the tremendous responsibility and privilege of flying astronauts to the International Space Station.”

Right now they are aiming for an October/November launch date.

NASA selects full crew for first operational Dragon mission

Even though SpaceX’s first demonstration manned mission to ISS has not yet occurred, NASA yesterday announced the selection of the full four person crew for the second flight, set for later this year and intended as the first operational mission to ISS, lasting six months.

This announcement tells us several things, all good. First, it appears NASA has now definitely decided that the demo mission, presently scheduled for mid-May, will be a short-term mission. They had considered making it a six-month mission, but it now appears they have concluded doing so will delay the demo launch too much.

Second, that NASA is solidifying its plans for that operational flight, the second for Dragon, including a tentative launch date later in 2020, is further evidence that they intend to go through with the demo mission in mid-May.

Finally, it appears that NASA has decided that it will not buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules, something that they had previously hinted they needed to do because the agency was worried the American capsules would not be ready this year. The article describes the negotiations on-going with the Russians about the use of Dragon, as well as the future use by Americans of Soyuz. NASA wishes to have astronauts from both countries fly on both spacecraft (Starliner too, once operational), but Russia is as yet reluctant to fly its astronauts on Dragon. They want to see that spacecraft complete more missions successfully.

Regardless, future flights of Americans on Soyuz will cost NASA nothing, as the agency wishes to trade the seats on the U.S. capsules one-for-one for the seats on Soyuz. It also means that NASA has decided it doesn’t need to buy Soyuz flights anymore, as it now expects Dragon to become operational this year.

New inspector general report slams NASA’s SLS management

A new report [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general released today harshly slams the management of NASA for the never-ending cost overruns and scheduling delays that have plagued the agency’s effort to build and launch the Space Launch System (SLS).

From the report’s introduction:

Based on our review of SLS Program cost reporting, we found that the Program exceeded its Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC)—that is, the cost and schedule baselines committed to Congress against which a program is measured—by at least 33 percent at the end of fiscal year 2019, a figure that could reach 43 percent or higher if additional delays push the launch date for Artemis I beyond November 2020.

… [T]he SLS Program now projects the Artemis I launch will be delayed to at least spring 2021 or later. Further, we found NASA’s ABC cost reporting only tracks Artemis I-related activities and not total SLS Program costs. Overall, by the end of fiscal year 2020, NASA will have spent more than $17 billion on the SLS Program—including almost $6 billion not tracked or reported as part of the ABC.

The graph below, taken from page 45 of the report, illustrates the management failures here quite starkly.
» Read more

NASA confirms seriousness of 2nd Starliner software issue

At a press conference today, NASA and Boeing officials confirmed the rumors that there was a second software error during Starliner’s unmanned demo mission in December that might have caused a serious failure had it not been caught on time.

[After the first software error], engineers began reviewing other critical software sequences as a precaution and discovered yet another problem. Software used to control thruster firings needed to safely jettison the Starliner’s service module just before re-entry was mis-configured, set for the wrong phase of flight.

Had the problem not been found and corrected, the cylindrical service module’s thrusters could have fired in the wrong sequence, driving it back into the crew module and possibly triggering a tumble or even damaging the ship’s protective heat shield.

While a detailed analysis was not carried out at the time, “nothing good can come from those two spacecraft bumping back into one another,” said Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing Space and Launch.

That two different software errors were not caught prior to flight has NASA demanding a complete review of Boeing’s quality control systems. And NASA here is correct. Boeing as a company appears to have fundamental quality control issues up and down the line, in all its projects. A complete review appears warranted.

NASA safety panel raises more questions about Boeing and Starliner

In its quarterly meeting yesterday, NASA’s safety panel raised more questions about the software problems during the unmanned demo mission of Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule in December.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) revealed today that a second software error was discovered during the uncrewed Boeing Starliner flight test in December. Had it gone undetected during the flight, it had the potential to cause “catastrophic spacecraft failure” during reentry. The panel wants a complete review of Boeing’s software verification processes before NASA decides whether a second uncrewed flight test is needed. In an email this evening, Boeing said it appreciates the input and is working on a plan with NASA to address all the issues and decide what comes next.

In that Boeing email it noted that it was “unclear” what the consequences would have been if this second software issue had not been fixed.

The safety panel also called for an overall organizational review of the entire Boeing company, similar to the review done to SpaceX after Elon Musk was videoed taking a toke on a joint during a podcast interview.

The decision on whether Boeing will be required to fly another unmanned demo mission is targeted for before the end of February.

One comment: While there is clear evidence here that Boeing had issues on that demo flight that must be resolved before humans fly on Starliner, we must also recognize that NASA’s safety panel has an unfortunate tendency to overstate risk, demanding margins of safety that are frequently unrealistic for an endeavor pushing the envelope of exploration. That panel has also exhibited an almost corrupt bias against private commercial space, while looking past much more serious safety issues in the NASA-built SLS and Orion programs.

At the same time, the larger corporate issues here with Boeing do appear far more systemic and concerning that those that occurred with SpaceX. A cold independent audit of the company by NASA could actually do Boeing a lot of good.

Boeing budgets for extra unmanned Starliner test

Capitalism in space: Boeing has put aside $410 million in its next budget to pay for a possible second unmanned Starliner test, just in case NASA demands it.

The company said in its fourth quarter earnings release Jan. 29 that it was taking the charge “primarily to provision for an additional uncrewed mission for the Commercial Crew program, performance and mix.” It noted that NASA was still reviewing data from the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) mission in December that was cut short, without a docking at the International Space Station, by a timer problem.

“NASA is in the process of reviewing the data from our December 2019 mission,” Greg Smith, chief financial officer at Boeing, said in an earnings call. “NASA’s approval is required to proceed with a flight test with astronauts on board. Given this obligation, we are provisioned for another uncrewed mission.” Neither he nor Boeing’s new chief executive, David Calhoun, elaborated on that during the call, which was devoted primarily to issues related to the company’s 737 MAX airliner.

It might be too early to say, but my instincts are telling me that this decision, made very quickly, is a very good sign for Boeing. It suggests that Calhoun doesn’t fool around, that he takes very seriously the need for Boeing to serve its customers. In the past Boeing would have lobbied NASA, its customer, to pay for a possible additional flight (something NASA is not required to do according to the contract). Now Boeing instead makes it clear that it has accepted the responsibility of that additional flight, right off the bat, something that any good and healthy company should do.

NASA picks Axiom to build three private commercial modules on ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA today picked the new space station company Axiom to build three modules to ISS, designed to operate as a private commercial operation.

The first segment launch is targeted for 2024. The three segments will include a node with multi-ports, a crew module, and a research module, and will be the “hotel” for private tourists that Axiom hopes to send to ISS two or three times per year. The entire section will also be designed to eventually separate from ISS when that station is retired and operate, with more additions, as an independent station.

This decision did not include the actual contract, only the choice of company to build this new section of ISS. Later negotiations will determine the fixed price amount that NASA will pay.

Why did NASA pick Axiom, which has not yet launched anything, and bypass Bigelow, which has launched two independent test modules and one that has been attached to ISS and working successfully now for several years? This quote explains:

Although Axiom is a relatively young company, having been formed only four years ago in 2016, there is no lack of experience within the company’s ranks.

Axiom’s Co-founder and CEO is Micheal Suffredini, who formerly worked at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) as the program manager for the International Space Station project.

The Axiom team also includes Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle three times and commanded the 14th Expedition to the ISS, as well as former shuttle commanders Brent Jett and Charles Bolden, the latter of whom served as NASA’s 12th administrator from 2009 to 2017.

Axiom is also working alongside several companies with extensive experience with the ISS program, this includes Boeing, who has made several of the modules that make up the US Segment, including Node 1 and the US Laboratory Module. Axiom is also working alongside Thales Alenia Space, Maxar Technologies and Intuitive Machines to get this project off the ground. [emphasis mine]

In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is not to say that the individuals and companies listed above do not know much, but that the company’s real experience with building private modules is lacking. Boeing has built NASA’s modules, but those were for the government and were therefore costly. I have grave doubts they could do this inexpensively, though I could be wrong.

The key will be whether they aim to make their profits from their commercial customers, or use NASA (and the federal government) as their cash cow. The track record of most of Axiom’s partners suggests the latter. For example, Bigelow built and launched its BEAM module to ISS for $17 million, and got it done in three years. We don’t yet know the cost of Axiom’s modules, but their target build-time is already longer, at four to five years

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud NASA’s approach here. They are ceding ownership and construction to a private company, and allowing its work to be commercialized for profit, something that NASA routinely opposed for decades. I just worry that the company it has chosen will be not up to the task, and is not focused on making those profits.

Boeing flies 777X for the first time

On January 25 Boeing successfully flew its new giant 777X commercial airplane for the first time.

Originally unveiled at the 2013 Dubai Airshow, the 777X is an advance on the engineering and interior innovations of the 777 and 787 Dreamliner. The twin-engine jetliner is available in the 777-8 and 777-9 variants with ranges of up to 8,700 nm (10,012 mi/16,110 km) and seating between 350 and 425 passengers.

The key innovation of the 777X is its lightweight wing design based on a composite spar made from over 400 miles (644 km) of carbon tape cured in a specially-built autoclave. This allows the aircraft to have a wingspan of 235 ft (72 m) – a span so long that the wings have folding sections at their tips so the plane can fit in conventional boarding gates.

The test flight lasted just under four hours. The pictures at the link illustrate clearly emphasize the lightweight wings, which look tiny compared to the two engines.

Boeing desperately needs a success, considering the string of problems almost all of its major projects have been having recently.

Boeing abruptly exits DARPA’s experimental spaceplane project

Boeing today announced it is pulling out of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane Program, cancelling development of its Phantom Express-1 hyposonic plane.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says Boeing is dropping out of its Experimental Spaceplane Program immediately, grounding the XS-1 Phantom Express, even though technical tests had shown the hypersonic space plane concept was feasible. “The detailed engineering activities conducted under the Experimental Spaceplane Program affirmed that no technical showstoppers stand in the way of achieving DARPA’s objectives, and that a system such as XSP would bolster national security,” DARPA said in a statement issued today.

Boeing has provided no clear explanation for this exit. I suspect it might have to do with their other problems related to the 737-Max airplane and the costs it is imposing on the company. Also, the program called for the first test flights in 2020, and it might also be that Boeing had doubts about meeting that goal.

Right now I wonder if Boeing will have to return any of the cash DARPA provided it for the work done so far, out of the total $146 million award. Moreover, at least two other companies had bid for this contract, Masten and Northrop Grumman. Will Boeing’s exit now allow them to pick up the pieces? Or has Boeing’s contract win and sudden exit mainly achieved the goal of stymieing their compeition?

Overall, this decision by Boeing is just another black mark on the company, just one of many that has occurred in the past few years.

UPDATE: It appears that Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc suspects the same Machiavellian maneuvers from Boeing as I.

A couple of years ago, a friend made the surprising predication that DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane Program (XSP) — a R&D effort designed to produce a rocket capable of being launched 10 times in 10 days — would never see any hardware built.

The reasoning went like this: the winning bidder, Boeing, really wasn’t interested in the technology. The company was actually interested in government funding and keeping other companies from developing the system.

Messier isn’t sure either, noting that the pull out might also have occurred due to the arrival of Boeing’s new CEO, only a week earlier.

Boeing looking to borrow up to $10 billion because of 737-Max problems

Boeing apparently is in discussions with several banks in an effort to secure a $10 billion loan to help it deal with the costs related to the suspension of production of the 737-Max airplane after two fatal crashes.

Boeing is in talks with banks to secure a loan of $10 billion or more, according to people familiar with the matter, as the company faces rising costs stemming from two fatal crashes of its 737 Max planes. The company has secured at least $6 billion from banks so far, the people said, and is talking to other lenders for more contributions. The total amount could rise if there is additional demand from banks, one person familiar with the matter said.

Liquidity isn’t an immediate concern, analysts have said, but the new debt shows Boeing is shoring up its finances amid the cash-sapping fallout of the two crashes — one in Indonesia in October 2018 and another in Ethiopia in March last year — that killed all 346 people aboard the two flights.

The amount Boeing is seeking to borrow is more than what some analysts were expecting. For example, Jefferies earlier this month forecast Boeing would issue $5 billion in debt this quarter.

I must emphasize that this story relies on anonymous sources, and is reported by CNBC, a division of NBC, one of today’s least reliable news sources.

More trustworthy information should become available on January 29, when Boeing makes its next earnings report.

A detailed look at Boeing’s recent aircraft problems

Link here. The article is entirely focused at reviewing only Boeing’s recent aircraft projects (Boeing 787, Boeing 747-8, Boeing KC-46A, Boeing 777X and Boeing 737 MAX), all of which appear to have had a lot of development issues.

The worst of the lot was the KC-46A, with many of the problems shared by our incompetent federal government. Initially proposed in 2001 (that is not a typo), the contract award did not occur until 2010, with delivery of the first 18 planes set for August 2017. The GAO predicted this delivery would be late, and the GAO was right.

Worse, Boeing has had cost overruns on the tanker totaling $3.4 billion above the initial fixed cost development contract of $4.9 billion (that is also not a typo).

The article also cites far too many examples of where Boeing requested waivers in order to meet schedule, even though the waiver allowed serious safety issues to linger, a behavior that reminded me strongly of NASA’s management during the shuttle program, resulting in the loss of two shuttles because the agency preferred to push its schedule rather than deal with serious engineering problems.

When you add the delays, cost overruns, and sometimes absurd mistakes that have occurred during Boeing’s development of SLS, this article is far more disturbing. It gets worse when you consider the issues that have delayed the launch of Starliner, some of which (the parachutes) should not have been an issue considering Boeing’s half century of experience.

All told, these problems portray a company that is akin to our federal government, badly managed and ripe for disaster. While the U.S. aerospace industry would take a deep hit if Boeing went under, that hit however would likely be temporary, especially considering the problems Boeing is having.

Freedom must allow bad businesses to fail so that fresh faces not bogged down by old problems can come to the fore and replace them. If Boeing collapsed I suspect a host of new companies would quickly appear, all likely more capable of producing what the nation’s aerospace industry needs. Because right now, Boeing is certainly not doing the job.

Boeing releases video of Starliner’s first orbital demo flight

Capitalism in space: Boeing has released a video showing what it was like to be on its Starliner capsule during its first orbital demo flight on December 20, 2019.

Flying alongside the uncrewed Starliner’s only official passenger — a spacesuit-clad, instrumented dummy (or anthropometric test device) named “Rosie” (after the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter), Snoopy, in plush doll form, served as the vehicle’s “zero-g indicator.” The video shows the doll floating weightless at the end of its “leash” after the Starliner entered Earth orbit.

The video is embedded below the fold. It is relatively boring, which actually is a good thing. The interior of the capsule does not seem much disturbed during each phase of the flight, from launch, separation from launch vehicle, and touchdown.
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