Starliner launch scrubbed; no launch date yet set

For reasons that have not yet been revealed, ULA scrubbed today’s unmanned demo test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule just prior to launch, rescheduling the launch for tomorrow.

The launch tomorrow wiill occur at 12:57 am (Eastern).

UPDATE: It appears the scrub occurred because of a valve issue in the propulsion system of Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

“During pre-launch preparations for the uncrewed test flight of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, Boeing engineers monitoring the health and status of the vehicle detected unexpected valve position indications in the propulsion system,” the company said in a statement. “The issue was initially detected during check outs following yesterday’s electrical storms in the region of Kennedy Space Center.”

…The propulsion system valves in question are inside the Starliner’s service module, which has an array of rocket thrusters designed to propel the spacecraft away from its launcher during an in-flight emergency. Other thrusters on the service module are used for in-orbit maneuvers and spacecraft pointing control.

Boeing cannot afford more failures during this second demo flight. The company has been plagued with numerous debilitating technical failures during the past four years, from Starliner to its airlines. Right now the failure to get Starliner operational is losing them business in the emerging orbital tourist market. They need to get it working, and working reliably.

UPDATE: They have decided to cancel the launch plans for tomorrow, to roll the rocket back into the assembly building so they can do more tests on the capsule’s service module where the troublesome valves are.

Nauka engines fire unexpectedly after docking; forces cancellation of Starliner launch

The soap opera of the Nauka module to ISS became even more dramatic today when its engines fired unexpectedly after its docking, causing the station to shift in orbit and forcing Russian mission controllers to shut it down and fire other engines to return the station to its proper orbit.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency attributed the issue to Nauka’s engines having to work with residual fuel in the craft, TASS news agency reported. “The process of transferring the Nauka module from flight mode to ‘docked with ISS’ mode is underway. Work is being carried out on the remaining fuel in the module,” Roscosmos was cited by TASS as saying.

It appears that because they needed to improvise the rendezvous using different engines, there is more fuel left over in Nauka than expected once it docked, and this needs to be vented safely. Somehow, instead of venting the module ignited the engines.

NASA has subsequently postponed tomorrow’s second unmanned demo launch of Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule until the agency has a clear understanding of the issue and has confirmed that Nauka’s presence is not a serious safety issue.

Boeing and NASA set July 30th for 2nd unmanned Starliner demo mission

Capitalism in space: Boeing and NASA today announced that they have now scheduled the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS for July 30th.

In separate statements, the agency and the company said they were planning to launch the Starliner on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 at 2:53 p.m. Eastern July 30 on the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission. A launch that day would allow the spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station on the evening of July 31.

The new launch date comes after NASA and Boeing completed an “integrated mission dress rehearsal” for the mission using a simulator at a Boeing facility in Houston. The five-day simulation covered activities starting 26 hours before launch and going through landing, including docking and undocking from the station.

Both Boeing and NASA are still hopeful that the first manned flight of Starliner can still take place before the end of this year. Whether it does or not will largely depend on how well things go on this unmanned demo flight.

Boeing confirms next Starliner unmanned demo flight delayed until August

Capitalism in space: Boeing on April 17th confirmed what had already been rumored, that the second unmanned demo flight to ISS of Starliner, its manned capsule, has been delayed until August.

In a statement, Boeing said that the company and NASA are projecting the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission will take place in August or September. That date is “supported by a space station docking opportunity and the availability of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and Eastern Range.”

Boeing had been working toward a launch of OFT-2 in late March or early April. However, by early March, NASA officials acknowledged that was no longer likely because of delays from the replacement of avionics units on the spacecraft that were damaged by a power surge during ground tests, as well as power outages in the Houston area caused by a winter storm in February that interrupted software testing.

They still hope to make the first manned demo flight before the end of the year, assuming the summer unmanned flight goes as planned.

For Boeing, the sooner they get this capsule operational, the sooner it can start earning money by flying commercial flights. At the moment the delays have meant that SpaceX is getting all that business, with two private flights already scheduled and rumors that it will win a flight from the UAE as well. Furthermore, other commercial competitors are on the horizon, including both China and India.

More delays to Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule schedule

Capitalism in space: Though no new launch date has been announced, both NASA and Boeing are now likely aiming for a summer launch of the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS.

This is largely due to traffic at the International Space Station rather than the readiness of Starliner itself. Two NASA sources said the vehicle is “close” to being ready, with only a few small tests to certify the spacecraft for flight remaining. Starliner is therefore expected to be ready to fly by early summer.

The primary issue is the availability of space station docking ports fitted with an “international docking adapter,” which are used by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon 2, and Starliner vehicles. There are presently two such ports on the station, and for NASA, the priority for access to these ports are crew rotations followed by supply missions. So the question becomes when the Starliner test flight can find an open slot on station.

It appears that they are now targeting the window of availability for either of those ports in the late July into August time period.

While this might be the main reason for this new delay, it also appears that there might be technical issues as well. In early March Boeing and NASA had announced that they were delaying this demo mission for the same scheduling reasons, but then they said they were targeting a May launch date, during a period after one manned Dragon mission had left in late April and before the next Dragon cargo mission arrived in June.

It now appears they cannot meet that window any longer, and are therefore aiming for the next, in July.

Meanwhile, the first manned Starliner demo mission appears to have also pushed back, from late this year to early next year.

Scheduling conflicts at ISS delay Starliner unmanned demo flight till May

NASA and Boeing have been forced to again delay the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS due to scheduling conflicts with Soyuz and Dragon missions in April, forcing the flight to slip to May.

A Russian Soyuz capsule is set for launch April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut. The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft will dock with the space station about three hours after launch, and an outgoing three-person crew will depart and return to Earth on April 17.

SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon flight to the space station is set for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida around April 20 with astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide, and Thomas Pesquet. Their mission, known as Crew-2, will last about six months.

The four astronauts who flew to the station last November on the Crew-1 mission — aboard the Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft — will return to Earth in late April or early May. Both docking ports capable of receiving the Boeing Starliner capsule will be occupied during the crew handover in late April.

They had hoped to launch on April 2nd, but I suspect strongly that Boeing and NASA are glad to have this extra time.

Texas power outages delay Starliner but not Starship

Boeing announced yesterday that due to the winter storms and power outages in Texas it has delayed the second unmanned demo flight of its Starliner manned capsule from March 25 to no earlier than April 2nd.

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Starship operation in Boca Chica, Texas has been proceeding practically unaffected by the power outages.

At the southernmost fringes of Texas, SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory hasn’t been insulated from the chaos, though a large Tesla Solar and Energy installation has almost certainly lessened the blow. Highly cognizant of Boca Chica’s shortcomings for industrial-grade power needs, SpaceX installed that solar array and Tesla-made Powerpacks almost three years ago and substantially expanded it in 2020.

As a result, despite major issues posed by freezing weather and power grid instability, SpaceX has managed to keep the lights on and continue work at its Starship factory, while also slowly but surely preparing Starship serial number 10 (SN10) for its first static fire and high-altitude launch.

The weather is clearly slowing the Starship test schedule, but at least the work seems insulated from loss of power.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
» Read more

Starliner lands safely after failed orbital insertion

Capitalism in space:Boeing’s Starliner capsule successfully landed today in New Mexico, returning to Earth prematurely because of its failure to reach its proper orbit after launch two days ago.

The article quotes extensively from both NASA and Boeing officials touting the many successful achievements of this flight, while trying to minimize the failure that prevented the capsule from docking with ISS properly. And that failure?

The mission elapsed timer issue that cut short Starliner’s planned eight-day mission started before the spacecraft lifted off Friday from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, according to Chilton. “Our spacecraft needs to reach down into the Atlas 5 and figure out what time it is, where the Atlas 5 is in its mission profile, and then we set the clock based on that,” Chilton said in a press conference Saturday. “Somehow we reached in there and grabbed the wrong (number). This doesn’t look like an Atlas problem. This looks like we reached in and grabbed the wrong coefficient.”

“As a result of starting the clock at the wrong time, the spacecraft upon reaching space, she thought she was later in the mission, and, being autonomous, started to behave that way,” Chilton said. “And so it wasn’t in the orbit we expected without the burn and it wasn’t in the attitude expected and was, in fact, adjusting that attitude.”

I read this and find myself appalled. While I agree that overall the mission proved the capsule capable of launching humans to ISS (which is why NASA is considering making the next Starliner mission manned despite this failure), this failure suggests a worrisome lack of quality control at Boeing. I can’t even imagine how the Starliner software could be mis-configured to “grab the wrong number.” This explanation makes no sense, and suggests they are spinning the failure to avoid telling us what they really did wrong.

Either way, I suspect that NASA will approve a manned launch for Starliner’s next orbital flight, but will do so only after dwelling on the problem for at least six months.

Starliner launch fails, spacecraft to return to Earth

After being successfully placed in a preliminary orbit by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning, Boeing’s Starliner capsule failed to reach its required orbit for docking with ISS when its own rocket engines did not fire properly at the right time.

The orbit it is in is stable, and the spacecraft is undamaged. Engineers now plan to bring it back to Earth on Sunday, landing at White Sands, New Mexico.

It appears some software issue had the capsule fire its own rockets either at the wrong time or for too short a time. The spacecraft was then in the wrong orbit, and needed to use too much fuel to correct this issue, making it impossible to dock with ISS.

More information here:

However, for reasons Boeing engineers do not yet understand, Starliner’s Mission Event Timer clock malfunctioned, causing the vehicle to think it was at a different point in the mission and at a different time in its mission that it actually was.

…This resulted in Starliner’s Reaction Control System thinking the Orbit Insertion Burn was underway and executing a series of burns to keep the vehicle oriented in the insertion burn attitude; however, the Orbit Insertion Burn was not actually occurring.

When mission controllers realized the issue, they sent manual commands to Starliner to perform an Orbit Insertion Burn in a backup window that came roughly eight minutes after the planned maneuver. However, a known and brief gap in NASA satellite communications caused a further delay.

By the time Starliner was finally able to burn its engines and get into a stable orbit, it had burned 25% more propellant than anticipated.

Boeing is certainly not having a good year. First it has had to shut down production on its new 737-Max airplane due to several crashes caused by software issues. Next its SLS rocket for NASA has had endless cost overruns and delays. Now Starliner fails during its first launch.

For ULA, however, the Atlas 5 rocket performed exactly as planned, so this launch gets listed as a success. They have now completed 5 launches this year.

Inspector general slams NASA’s management for bonus payments to Boeing

In a report [pdf] issued yesterday, NASA’s inspector general blasted the agency’s manned commercial space management for issuing a $287 million bonus payment to Boeing to help it avoid delays in developing its Starliner capsule — which would have caused gaps in future American flights to ISS — even though the cost to use Russian Soyuz capsules would have been far less.

Worse, the agency never even allowed SpaceX to make its own competitive offer.

NASA agreed to pay Boeing Co (BA.N) a $287 million premium for “additional flexibilities” to accelerate production of the company’s Starliner crew vehicle and avoid an 18-month gap in flights to the International Space Station. NASA’s inspector general called it an “unreasonable” boost to Boeing’s fixed-priced $4.2 billion dollar contract.

Instead, the inspector general said the space agency could have saved $144 million by making “simple changes” to Starliner’s planned launch schedule, including buying additional seats from Russia’s space agency, which the United States has been reliant on since the 2011 retirement of its space shuttle program.

…NASA justified the additional funds to avoid a gap in space station operations. But SpaceX, the other provider, “was not provided an opportunity to propose a solution, even though the company previously offered shorter production lead times than Boeing,” the report said. [emphasis mine]

I’ve read the report, and from it the impression is clear that when NASA management discovered that Boeing was facing delays in Starliner and needed extra cash, it decided to funnel that cash to it, irrespective of cost. While it is likely that the agency did so because it did not wish to buy more Russian Soyuz seats, it makes no sense that it didn’t ask SpaceX for its own competitive bid. By not doing so the management’s foolish bias towards Boeing is starkly illustrated

Eric Berger at Ars Technica also notes that the report makes clear how Boeing’s prices for Starliner are 60% higher than SpaceX’s Crew Dragon prices, further illustrating how the agency favors Boeing over SpaceX.

Boeing’s per-seat price already seemed like it would cost more than SpaceX. The company has received a total of $4.82 billion from NASA over the lifetime of the commercial crew program, compared to $3.14 billion for SpaceX. However, for the first time the government has published a per-seat price: $90 million for Starliner and $55 million for Dragon. Each capsule is expected to carry four astronauts to the space station during a nominal mission.

What is notable about Boeing’s price is that it is also higher than what NASA has paid the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, for Soyuz spacecraft seats to fly US and partner-nation astronauts to the space station. Overall, NASA paid Russia an average cost per seat of $55.4 million for the 70 completed and planned missions from 2006 through 2020. Since 2017, NASA has paid an average of $79.7 million.

I don’t have a problem with NASA favoring Boeing over Russia, considering the national priorities. I can also understand the agency’s willingness to keep buying some Starliner seats in order to guarantee an American launch redundancy. However, giving Boeing even more money to keep its schedule going, when SpaceX is available to fill the gaps, demonstrates the corruption in the agency’s management. They haven’t the slightest understanding of how private enterprise and competition works.

The report is also filled with the same tiresome complaints about the on-going delays to the manned commercial program, focusing greatly on past technical issues (now mostly solved) while hiding in obscure language how it is NASA’s paperwork that is likely to cause all further delays.

More detail on pad abort test parachute issue

At a press telecon yesterday Boeing outlined in more detail the cause of the failure of one main parachute to deploy during its November 4 Starliner pad abort test.

In a call with reporters, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial crew at Boeing, said an investigation after the Nov. 4 test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico led the company to conclude that a “lack of secure connection” between a pilot parachute and the main parachute prevented that main parachute, one of three, from deploying.

The pilot parachute is designed to deploy first, and pull out the main parachute. However, Mulholland said that hardware inspections and photographs taken during “closeout” of the vehicle prior to the test showed that a pin that links the pilot and main parachutes was not inserted properly.

“It’s very difficult, when you’re connecting that, to verify visually that it’s secured properly,” he said, in part because that portion of the parachute system is enclosed in a “protective sheath” intended to limit abrasion but which also makes it difficult to visually confirm the pin is in place. “In this particular case that pin wasn’t through the loop, but it wasn’t discovered in initial visual inspections because of that protective sheath.”

Mulholland said Boeing is modifying assembly procedures through what he called “fairly easy steps,” such as pull tests, to ensure those pins are properly installed. Technicians have already confirmed that the same parachute linkages are properly installed on the three parachutes on the Starliner that will launch in December on an orbital flight test to the International Space Station. [emphasis mine]

That a hardware inspection and photos taken before launch revealed this issue and resulted in nothing being done should rise serious questions at Boeing about its quality control processes. Based on the press telecon, however, it does not appear that Boeing is asking those questions. From a different report:

[John Mulholland, Boeing’s Starliner program manager] praised the rigging team, saying “even before we got eyes on the hardware, that team on their own initiative (was) reviewing the close-out photos and the processes, and they identified the potential issue that was subsequently validated by hardware inspection.”

“Most importantly, they raised their hand and and let us know what they believe the problem was,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the transparency of that team. The speak-up culture that we have, that is what we need on this program.”

While it is good that the rigging team was willing to speak up afterward, it is very bad that their procedures allowed the launch to go forward. The company says it has now changed its rigging procedures, but I don’t sense any effort on Boeing’s part to find out why its so-called “speak-up culture” failed to have these engineers speak-up, before launch.

New video of Starliner pad abort test

Boeing has released a new video of the Starliner pad abort test on November 4th, showing the full flight.

I have embedded the footage below the fold. The one aspect of this test that I have as yet not seen any explanation for is the red cloud to the left of the capsule’s touch down spot. It surely looks like the kind of smoke one sees from the release of certain toxic fuels. It was also something that the live stream video focused on, suggesting the possibility that its existence was important and needed to be recorded for engineering reasons.

Regardless, the fact that any onboard astronauts would have been safely returned to Earth, based on this test, should mean Boeing’s abort system is functioning properly. They note that they have pinpointed the reason one parachute did not deploy (“attributed to the lack of a secure connection between the pilot chute and one of the main chutes”), a problem that is probably quite simple to fix. Hopefully that one failure will not cause any significant delays in their future flights, including the first manned flight next year.
» Read more

Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success

According to the NASA press release for yesterday pad abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, the test was a success even though one of three main parachutes did not deploy successfully.

A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500 feet. Two of three Starliner’s main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and the service module separated from the crew module a few seconds later. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety. After one minute, the heat shield was released and airbags inflated, and the Starliner eased to the ground beneath its parachutes.

All reports say that this parachute issue will not effect the December 17 planned launch of the first unmanned orbital flight to ISS.

I find NASA’s reaction to this anomaly fascinating. Previously the agency repeatedly made a very big deal about the slightest anomaly by both Boeing and SpaceX on any test or procedure. While the agency’s response to these problems could have been reasonably justified, the caution it sometimes exhibited, often causing significant delays that might have been avoidable, was somewhat disturbing, especially when contrasted with the agency’s willingness to accept far more serious issues in connection with SLS and Orion.

Now however, the agency has no problem with the failure of one parachute to deploy during this test. While I actually agree with this response, the contrast is interesting and suggests to me that politics and deadlines (with the Russian Soyuz contract running out) are finally exerting some influence over NASA’s safety people. I suspect it has been made clear to them that unless something really seriously goes wrong, as long as the tests would have resulted in living astronauts, the safety bureaucrats had better not stand in the way of progress.

If so, this is very good news. It means that, assuming nothing really goes wrong with the remaining tests, the first manned missions are finally going to occur next year, relatively early in the year.

Posted at the Hayabusa-2/OSIRIS-REx asteroid conference in Tucson this week.

Boeing completes Starliner pad abort test

Embedded below the fold is the video of today’s Starliner pad abort test, cued up to just before launch. While the capsule landed safely, it appears that one of it’s parachutes deploy improperly. If so, this probably means Boeing will not be able to launch the unmanned demo flight to ISS on December 17.

No one during the podcast mentioned this fact, so it could mean that they considered the landing a success regardless. It is even possible that they planned it with only two chutes. Or it could be the corporate culture at Boeing, similar to the culture in the Soviet Union, to avoid mentioning non-obvious problems to the public in order to make believe all is well. We will have to wait and see.

UPDATE: More information here on the failure of one chute:

Video of the test appeared to show all three chutes deploy, but only two remained attached to Starliner – a significant issue that will have to be investigated and evaluated.

Hat tip to reader Col. Beausabre for the link to the video.
» Read more

1 2 3 4