Update on Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test


NASA and Boeing are in the process of establishing a joint, independent investigation team to examine the primary issues associated with the company’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test.

The independent team will inform NASA and Boeing on the root cause of the mission elapsed timer anomaly and any other software issues and provide corrective actions needed before flying crew to the International Space Station for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The team will review the primary anomalies experienced during the Dec. 2019 flight test, any potential contributing factors and provide recommendations to ensure a robust design for future missions. Once underway, the investigation is targeted to last about two months before the team delivers its final assessment.

In parallel, NASA is evaluating the data received during the mission to determine if another uncrewed demonstration is required. This decision is not expected for several weeks as teams take the necessary time for this review. NASA’s approach will be to determine if NASA and Boeing received enough data to validate the system’s overall performance, including launch, on-orbit operations, guidance, navigation and control, docking/undocking to the space station, reentry and landing. Although data from the uncrewed test is important for certification, it may not be the only way that Boeing is able to demonstrate its system’s full capabilities.

The uncrewed flight test was proposed by Boeing as a way to meet NASA’s mission and safety requirements for certification and as a way to validate that the system can protect astronauts in space before flying crew. The uncrewed mission, including docking to the space station, became a part of the company’s contract with NASA. Although docking was planned, it may not have to be accomplished prior to the crew demonstration. Boeing would need NASA’s approval to proceed with a flight test with astronauts onboard.

Starliner currently is being transported from the landing location near the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range to the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility in Florida. Since landing, teams have safed the spacecraft for transport, downloaded data from the spacecraft’s onboard systems for analysis and completed initial inspections of the interior and exterior of Starliner. A more detailed analysis will be conducted after the spacecraft arrives at its processing facility.

Boeing’s Orbital Flight test launched on Friday, Dec. 20, on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission successfully landed two days later on Sunday, Dec. 22, completing an abbreviated test that performed several mission objectives before returning to Earth as the first orbital land touchdown of a human-rated capsule in U.S. history.

Funding a New Era of Exploration, Science and Discovery

As the international leader in space for 60 years, NASA has achieved inspiring feats of exploration, discovery, science and technology. We have changed the way the world flies, communicates, navigates, predicts weather, produces food and energy, and so much more. 

President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 NASA budget is one of the strongest on record for our storied agency. In keeping with Space Policy Directive-1, it provides for the foundation of a national exploration campaign that will use the experience of the NASA workforce, coupled with the agility and innovation of our commercial and international partners, to create an architecture that is open, sustainable and agile. This unified effort will inspire generations and change the course of history as we realize the next great scientific, economic and technical achievements in space. 

The 2020 NASA budget supports a sustainable campaign of exploration, returning humans to lunar orbit and then the surface of the Moon, and eventually embarking on human missions to Mars and other destinations.

In low-Earth orbit, our Commercial Crew program remains strong and will soon be delivering American astronauts, on American rockets, from American soil to the International Space Station for the first time since 2011. The successes of our commercial and international partnerships on the International Space Station are now serving as the foundation for moving deeper into space. 

For the first time in a decade, NASA has a budget for pursuing activities on the lunar surface. We have called on American companies to help design and develop human lunar landers and reusable systems for surface activities. The Space Launch System and Orion, critical components of our exploration architecture, will reach important milestones in construction and testing this year, and our new lunar command module, the Gateway, will see international and commercial partnerships solidified and construction begin. 

NASA administrator and two astronauts sit down for conversation

With this budget, we will initiate the first round trip mission to the Red Planet with a Mars sample return mission, and many of the technological advancements we achieve moving forward to the Moon will provide critical data and capabilities for future robotic and crewed Mars missions. NASA is positioned to provide American leadership across each of these key destinations, empowering industry and the international community to move off the Earth in a unified, collaborative way. 

As this Administration places a priority on human exploration, the whole of NASA benefits with robust budgets and synergy across our mission directorates. We will continue to pursue transformative aeronautics technology as we develop the next generation of aircraft and make air travel safer and more efficient. We will increase our understanding of our home planet and move out on ambitious programs to study the far reaches of our solar system and beyond.

Through the leadership and investment of this Administration, the world will participate together in civilization-changing discoveries and achievements.

The fiscal year 2020 NASA budget is strong. We will explore, discover and inspire, and all of humanity will benefit from our efforts.

A Budget of Opportunities for NASA

NASA has once again received a strong bipartisan vote of confidence from President Donald J. Trump and Congress with the approval of our $21.5 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2019, which is $763.9 million above the FY 2018 enacted level. It’s a win for our space program and the American people.

All of our directorates received healthy topline funding at or exceeding the original budget request, and our work to move forward to the Moon and beyond remains on firm footing. We’re looking forward to giving Congress more details about our plans, and are confident that the taxpayer investment to explore deep space will reap large and ongoing dividends.

This budgetary support ensures progress on our bold plans to once again launch American astronauts to the International Space Station in American-made rockets from American soil on commercial spacecraft. We’re also marking milestones as we build the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft to take astronauts deeper into space than we have ever gone before. These big ideas demand long term commitment. And this budget fully supports them. The dedicated NASA workforce has been demonstrating that these things can be done, and is making progress and reaching milestones across the spectrum of our work.

This year we plan to contract for the first work on our Gateway, a new orbiting home for astronauts at the Moon, and the budget supports our work on this next step in our plans to extend human presence around the Moon. We are working to procure a commercially provided lunar lander with tech demonstrations and science payloads this year. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contractors will drive the schedule for the first delivery to the lunar surface. Industry is also helping us refine and advance our plans for landers to return humans to the lunar surface by 2028.

Thanks to bipartisan support, NASA has funding to develop cutting edge technologies focused on deep space exploration such as new propulsion technologies, and extraordinary science that continues to impact the lives of everyone on the planet through our Earth observations that improve weather forecasting and disaster preparedness and improve agriculture. This budget is also helping us target big science goals such as the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Our aeronautics engineers are working on transformative technologies to advance hypersonic travel, reducing that familiar boom and making flights faster, as well as improving travel for the average American and making airplanes safer and flights more reliable. These are some the countless breakthroughs made by NASA scientists and engineers that are improving the quality of life for every day Americans – benefits whose value increases exponentially.

It’s clear that NASA at 60 continues to lead the world in creating the future, and we look forward to implementing this strong budget.

How Is a Rocket Different From a Train?

Like many Americans, I rode the subway to work this morning.  Some of my colleagues took a bus.  Whether subway or bus, our conveyance was provided by the government and it abounded with all manner of commercial advertising intended to target riders, drivers, walkers, and anyone else who happened to take a gander.  Who benefits from this activity?  Everyone.  The advertisers reach an audience they desire and public transportation can improve and expand services while reducing the price of a ticket.

Why does the NASA Administrator care?  We are going to the Moon and this time we will have international and commercial partners that do not follow the norms of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, or Shuttle.

NASA administrator and two astronauts sit down for conversation
Speaking with astronauts Chris Ferguson and Sunita “Suni” Williams for an informal Q&A session. Both Ferguson and Williams were selected to fly on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner for the Commercial Crew Program.

Right now, the United States of America is on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011.  Unlike previous human launches, NASA will not own and operate the rockets.  Instead, NASA will be a customer of a robust, domestic, commercial industry currently providing access to low Earth orbit.

The industry itself is a NASA success story and an American victory.  Because of NASA’s investments in the American launch industry, space launch now represents a net export for our country.  In fact, from 2011-2017, the United States grew its market share of commercial launch from 0% to a 54% in the global economy.  In 2018, the United States could reach 65%.

NASA’s investments now enable it to be a customer of the very launch industry it helped create.  The intent is to be one customer of many customers in a flourishing launch industry with numerous providers all competing on cost and innovation.  Savings, innovation, and redundancy result.

With many diverse launch customers, costs are spread, scale is increased, and the result is lower prices and increased access to space for NASA and others.

When multiple commercial launch providers compete to earn business, they have a strong incentive to innovate on design, engineering, manufacturing, and operations to improve services and reduce costs.  We have seen this already with the advent of reusable rockets, improved engines, and so much more.

Unlike the early Space Shuttle era, if a failure occurs in the new paradigm, we will not lose access to space.  Instead, we have the redundancy of numerous, dissimilar rockets from various service providers.

Commercial satellite operators, other government agencies, international partners, and America’s trade balance all benefit from NASA’s commitment to commercialization.  Apart from launch, NASA is also committed to commercializing human activities in low Earth orbit and we are making great strides toward that end.

These commercial successes enable NASA to do more in low Earth orbit, while freeing NASA’s budget to take humans to the Moon with a sustainable architecture.

In the new environment where NASA is just one customer, the question becomes: who else is a customer on our missions?  The prospects could be astronomical.  Some patrons could be companies uninvolved in space activities, but desiring to brand their wares on a rocket flying to space.  It might not be bad to have another customer spreading costs and reducing the price to NASA.

It could even be possible for NASA to carry such a brand itself.  Maybe on the ISS?  So long as it doesn’t compete against a commercial provider.  This was the topic of a recent article by Christian Davenport of the Washington Post.  (Chris: I would prefer a frothy soda pop.)

If NASA were to carry the brand of another, the purpose would be singular:  to prove a branding market exists, not to compete against commercial providers.  Another revenue stream for commercial providers (launch or space stations) could reduce costs to NASA and loosen new capital markets for space companies.

NASA is currently partnering with industry to demonstrate many various markets including in-space manufacturing, pharmaceutical development, the 3-D printing of human organs, and so much more.  Is it possible for NASA to demonstrate a branding opportunity?

I don’t know, but I have asked the NASA Advisory Committee to investigate the realm of the possible.  If the answer is yes, I look forward to working with my former colleagues in the Congress to make it happen.

What I do know is that tomorrow, when I get on the subway, there will be lots of commercial companies trying to get my attention and I’m ok with it, because it offsets the cost of my ticket.