NASA, Boeing Announce Crew Changes for Starliner Crew Flight Test

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson review International Space Station training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson review International Space Station training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in December 2018. Photo credit: Boeing

Veteran NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore will join astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test, the inaugural crewed flight of the CST-100 Starliner launching to the International Space Station in 2021.

Wilmore will take the place of Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson on the flight test as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Ferguson decided not to fly for personal reasons.

Wilmore has been training side-by-side with the crew since being named the sole backup for all flight positions in July 2018. He now will shift his focus specifically to the spacecraft commander’s duties in preparation for the flight to the space station. The flight is designed to test the end-to-end capabilities of the new Starliner system.

Commander Barry Wilmore takes a self-portrait with food packages (smoked turkey, cranapple dessert, cornbread dressing, and tea with sugar) planned for his Thanksgiving meal.
Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore takes a self-portrait with food packages planned for his Thanksgiving meal in November 2014 aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA/Barry Wilmore

Wilmore has spent a total of 178 days in space over the course of two missions. In 2009, he served as the pilot of space shuttle Atlantis on STS-129, helping to deliver 14 tons of spare parts for the space station. In 2014, he returned to the space station via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a 167-day mission, during which he performed four spacewalks.

The development of a safe, reliable and cost-effective solution for crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station remains a priority for NASA and Boeing, allowing the on-orbit research facility to continue to fulfill its promise as a world-class laboratory.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and to the space station. Commercial transportation to and from the station will provide expanded utility, additional research time and broader opportunities for discovery on the orbital outpost.

Read the full news release here.

Boeing’s Starliner Makes Progress Ahead of Flight Test with Astronauts

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann, left, Mike Fincke, and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, right
NASA astronauts Nicole Mann, left, Mike Fincke, and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, right, pose for a photograph on Sept. 11, 2019, as they, along with teams from NASA, Boeing and the White Sands Missile Range, rehearse landing and crew extraction from Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. Photo credit: Boeing

NASA and Boeing continue to make progress toward the company’s second uncrewed flight test of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft prior to flying astronauts to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The Commercial Crew Program currently is targeting no earlier than December 2020 for launch of the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) pending hardware readiness, flight software qualification, and launch vehicle and space station manifest priorities.

Over the summer, Boeing’s Starliner team focused on readying the next spacecraft for its upcoming flight tests as well as making improvements identified during various review processes throughout the beginning of the year. NASA also announced an additional crew assignment for its first operational mission, NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1, with astronauts to the space station.

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NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps Joins NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 Mission

NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps
NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps

NASA has assigned astronaut Jeanette Epps to NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission, the first operational crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on a mission to the International Space Station.

Epps will join NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada for a six-month expedition planned for a launch in 2021 to the orbiting space laboratory. The flight will follow NASA certification after a successful uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 and Crew Flight Test with astronauts.

Read the full release here.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and to the space station. Commercial transportation to and from the station will provide expanded utility, additional research time and broader opportunities for discovery on the orbital outpost.

NASA and Boeing Complete Orbital Flight Test Reviews

An artist's illustration of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in orbit.
An artist’s illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in orbit. Photo credit: Boeing

NASA and Boeing have completed reviews of the company’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) that flew in December 2019 and are working toward a plan to refly the mission to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

The joint NASA-Boeing Independent Review team completed their final assessments of issues that were detected during the first test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Following this conclusion, the team identified a total of 80 recommendations that Boeing, in collaboration with NASA, is addressing. A launch date has not been set yet for the second flight test, dubbed OFT-2.

To read the full article, click here.

Starliner Parachutes Perform Under Pressure

Boeing conducts a landing system reliability test on June 21, 2020.
Two drogue parachutes successfully deploy from a Boeing Starliner test article during a landing system reliability test conducted on June 21 above White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. Photo credit: Boeing

Boeing put Starliner’s parachutes to the test again on June 21 as part of a supplemental reliability campaign designed to further validate the system’s capabilities under an adverse set of environmental factors.

Boeing conducts a landing system reliability test on June 21, 2020.
An inflated high altitude balloon hovers over the desert at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico on June 21 ahead of Boeing Starliner’s recent parachute reliability drop test.
Photo credit: Boeing

Boeing is developing the Starliner spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

This latest balloon drop, conducted high above White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, demonstrates Starliner’s parachutes continue to perform well even under dynamic abort conditions and a simulated failure. Boeing and NASA jointly developed the conditions for this test as part of a comprehensive test campaign to demonstrate Starliner parachute performance across the range of deployment conditions.

Teams wanted to be sure that if an abort were to occur early into launch, certain parachutes in Starliner’s landing sequence would inflate correctly despite needing to deploy in significantly different flight conditions than those seen with normal landings.

“Parachutes like clean air flow,” said Jim Harder, Boeing’s flight conductor. “They inflate predictably under a wide range of conditions, but in certain ascent aborts, you are deploying these parachutes into more unsteady air where proper inflation becomes less predictable. We wanted to test the inflation characteristics at low dynamic pressure so we can be completely confident in the system we developed.”

This critical test phase began six seconds into the drop when small parachutes designed to lift away Starliner’s Forward Heat Shield deployed successfully. Ten seconds later, the vehicle’s two drogue parachutes followed suit, inflating perfectly despite the low dynamic pressure. But the Starliner boilerplate wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Test teams added a fault scenario to the test objectives by preventing one of Starliner’s three main parachutes from deploying altogether. At 98 seconds into flight, just two pilot chutes were fired resulting in only two of the three main parachutes deploying. Despite the higher loading, Starliner’s parachutes performed effectively, bringing the test article down to Earth safely and slowly about two-and-a-half minutes later.

Boeing conducts a landing system reliability test on June 21, 2020.
A Boeing Starliner test article descends over White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico on June 21 during a landing system reliability test designed to simulate dynamic abort conditions and a main parachute failure.
Photo credit: Boeing

The data extracted from this test will be utilized to improve the reliability of the Starliner parachute system ahead of crewed flights and be shared with NASA for their own vehicle use.

“Our parachute system is very similar to the design NASA uses to bring humans safely back from the Moon. Turns out, we can use some of their test data to model our mission scenarios, and they can use a lot of our data to model theirs,” said Starliner test manager Dan Niedermaier. “It really is all about the data. The more you have, the more accurate your models will be. This shared approach helps to keep both systems incredibly safe.”

During the summer, Boeing and NASA will continue to test Starliner’s parachute strength, building out even more reliability on a system that’s already shown to be consistently robust.

“Our parachutes have passed every test.” Niedermaier said. “We continue to push our system because we know what’s at stake. This demanding test program ensures Starliner can bring our astronauts home safe.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is a public-private partnership combining NASA’s experience with new technology and designs pioneered by private industry to make space travel safer and available for all. This test is one of many steps that advances NASA’s goals of returning human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil on commercially-built and operated American rockets and spacecraft, preparing for a human presence on the Moon, and ultimately sending astronauts to Mars.

Boeing to Fly Second Uncrewed Orbital Flight Test for NASA

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner lifted off Dec. 20, 2019 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft successfully landed two days later, completing an abbreviated uncrewed test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Boeing has decided to fly a second uncrewed flight test as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Although no new launch date has been set, NASA has accepted the proposal to fly the mission again and will work side-by-side with Boeing to resume flight tests to the International Space Station on the company’s CST-100 Starliner system.

The agency’s Commercial Crew Program is a unique approach to human spaceflight in which NASA provides a set of mission and safety requirements and private companies, like Boeing and SpaceX, propose their own unique strategies to prove the systems meet the intent of the requirements. Consistent with that approach, Boeing had the responsibility to bring NASA its proposal on how to proceed with the flights.

An uncrewed flight test originally was proposed by Boeing to demonstrate the Starliner system could perform as designed to fly to the space station prior to having a crew onboard. With that proposal, the uncrewed flight became a part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract in 2014 between NASA and Boeing.

Although many of the objectives of Boeing’s first uncrewed flight test in December 2019 were accomplished, Boeing decided the best approach to meeting the agency’s requirements would be to fly the mission again, including docking with the space station. Data from the next and previous flight test will be used as part of NASA’s process of certifying Boeing’s crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the space station.

If Boeing would have proposed a crewed mission as the next flight, NASA would have completed a detailed review and analysis of the proposal to determine the feasibility of the plan. However, as this was not the recommendation made by Boeing, NASA will not speculate on what the agency would have required.

The second uncrewed flight does not relieve Boeing from completing all the actions determined from the joint NASA/Boeing independent review team, which was commissioned following the flawed initial flight.  NASA still intends to conduct the needed oversight to make sure those corrective actions are taken.

NASA and Boeing are in the early stages of the decision to fly a second uncrewed orbital mission to the station, and a timeline for flying crew has not been determined.

Although completing a second uncrewed flight test was not in the timeline for returning U.S. human spaceflight on Starliner, NASA fully supports our Boeing partner’s commitment to flying astronauts as safely as possible.

This is exactly why NASA decided to select two partners in the commercial crew effort. Having dissimilar redundancy is key in NASA’s approach to maintaining a crew and cargo aboard the space station and to keeping our commitments to international partners. It also allows our private industry partners to focus on crew safety rather than schedule. The safety of our commercial crew team always will remain as our top priority.

NASA Update on Orbital Flight Test Independent Review Team

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility in Florida, undergoing inspection after its Orbital Flight Test. (Photo Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux)

The joint NASA and Boeing Independent Review Team formed following the anomalies during the company’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test as a part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program has completed its initial investigation. The team was tasked with reviewing three primary anomalies experienced during the mission: two software coding errors and unanticipated loss of space-to-ground communication capability. During the investigation, the team identified several technical and organizational issues related to Boeing’s work. Separate from the independent team, NASA reviewed its role in the flight test and identified several areas where the agency can improve its level of participation and involvement into company’s processes.

While the review team, NASA and Boeing have made significant progress during the last month, more work will be required to inform the agency’s decision of whether Boeing will need to perform another uncrewed test flight of the Starliner system. NASA will determine whether a repeat of the flight will be needed after Boeing has presented its detailed resolution and rework plan, and NASA has independently assessed the thoroughness of that plan.

NASA also will perform an evaluation of the workplace culture of Boeing ahead of crewed test flights through an Organizational Safety Assessment (OSA). The goal of the OSA is to provide a comprehensive safety assessment through individual employee interviews with a sampling from a cross-section of personnel, including senior managers, mid-level management and supervision, and engineers and technicians at various sites.

Further, NASA will designate the anomalies experienced during the mission as a high visibility close call. As there were no injuries during the flight, this close call designation is where the potential for a significant mishap could have occurred and should be investigated to understand the risk exposure and the root cause(s) that placed equipment or individuals at risk. Since 2004, the year NASA updated this procedural requirement, NASA has designated about 24 high visibility close calls. For example, in July 2013, astronaut Luca Parmitano discovered a leak in his spacesuit that could have resulted in asphyxiation; as a result, that incident also was given the same designation.

Description of the three primary anomalies:

  • Mission Elapsed Timer (MET): Following spacecraft separation with the Atlas V launch vehicle, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is programmed to execute a few maneuvers tied to the mission timer. Because of an error in the coding, the Starliner synced its clock with the rocket before the terminal count had begun, which is when the rocket sets the correct time for a designated T-0. This led to the spacecraft thinking it was at a different point in the mission following separation, and it did not conduct the correct maneuvers.
  • Service Module Disposal Burn: Following the MET anomaly, Boeing and NASA reviewed other phases of flight where software coding could impact mission success. This review resulted in the team discovering and correcting a software issue during Starliner’s crew and service module separation sequence. The correction ensured a successful separation and disposal of the service module.
  • Space-to-Ground Communication (S/G): An Intermittent S/G forward link issue impeded the flight control team’s ability to command and control Starliner during the mission and could impede reliable voice communication with crew during a flight with astronauts.

What the Review Team Found and Recommends

The review team’s analysis identified 61 corrective and preventative actions to address the two software anomalies; those actions are organized into four categories to help manage and execute the scope of the work. Below are the four categories and examples of the resulting actions that Boeing has already begun working on:

  1. Perform code modifications: Boeing will review and correct the coding for the mission elapsed timer and service module disposal burn.
  2. Improve focused systems engineering: Boeing will strengthen its review process including better peer and control board reviews, and improve its software process training.
  3. Improve software testing: Boeing will increase the fidelity in the testing of its software during all phases of flight. This includes improved end-to-end testing with the simulations, or emulators, similar enough to the actual flight system to adequately uncover issues.
  4. Ensure product integrity: Boeing will check its software coding as hardware design changes are implemented into its system design.

Boeing already has accepted the full action list as defined by the review team and is in the process of refining its implementation schedule and incorporating this work into its plans with multiple actions already underway. As work continues, NASA and Boeing have asked the joint review team to track their progress and execution of each action.

The review team also is continuing its investigation of the intermittent space-to-ground forward link issue that impeded the flight control team’s ability to command and control the spacecraft. The team has identified the technical root cause as radiofrequency interference with the communications system. While the team has recommended specific hardware improvements already in work by the company, the full assessment and resulting recommendations will continue through March.

In addition to the technical issues described above, the review team identified organizational issues that contributed to the anomalies. In response, Boeing plans to institutionalize improvements in its engineering board authority, operational testing practices for both hardware and software, and the standardization problem review and approval processes.

NASA’s Internal Review and Forward Work

Concurrent with the independent review team, NASA performed an in-depth assessment of its role and identified multiple actions the agency will take to complement the actions planned by the Boeing Starliner team.

NASA has developed a comprehensive plan to ensure the agency has full coverage of critical Boeing software improvements. This plan also includes reassessing all hazard report verifications of software controls, re-opening hazard reports as necessary, reviewing software verification plans, and reviewing the adequacy of the test environments and audits of scripts used in testing. NASA also will co-locate personnel with the Boeing software team, increase support to the Boeing Software Change Control Board and the problem resolution process. NASA also plans to perform additional flight software audits.

In addition, NASA will improve its software independent verification and validation performance and overall NASA insight into this area. NASA also plans to address areas where additional NASA “safety nets” may be beneficial for all providers.

NASA also will take several actions to improve the overall system integration of Starliner, including revisiting all hazard causes related to system interfaces to ensure hazards are fully defined, well-controlled, and properly verified; and reviewing existing Interface Control Documents to ensure NASA understands where the definitive data sources are for subsystem interfaces.

NASA Shares Initial Findings from Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test Investigation

Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel work around the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Following the anomaly that occurred during the December Boeing Starliner Orbital Fight Test (OFT), NASA and Boeing formed a joint investigation team tasked with examining the primary issues, which occurred during that test. Those issues included three specific concerns revealed during flight:

  1. An error with the Mission Elapsed Timer (MET), which incorrectly polled time from the Atlas V booster nearly 11 hours prior to launch.
  2. A software issue within the Service Module (SM) Disposal Sequence, which incorrectly translated the SM disposal sequence into the SM Integrated Propulsion Controller (IPC).
  3. An Intermittent Space-to-Ground (S/G) forward link issue, which impeded the Flight Control team’s ability to command and control the vehicle.

The joint investigation team convened in early January and has now identified the direct causes and preliminary corrective actions for the first two anomalies. The intermittent communications issues still are under investigation. NASA reviewed these results on Friday, Jan. 31 along with multiple suggested corrective actions recommended by the team. While NASA was satisfied that the team had properly identified the technical root cause of the two anomalies, they requested the team to perform a more in-depth analysis as to why the anomalies occurred, including an analysis of whether the issues were indicative of weak internal software processes or failure in applying those processes. The team is in the process of performing this additional analysis, as well as continuing the investigation of the intermittent communications issues. NASA briefed the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel on the status of the investigation this week.

Regarding the first two anomalies, the team found the two critical software defects were not detected ahead of flight despite multiple safeguards.  Ground intervention prevented loss of vehicle in both cases. Breakdowns in the design and code phase inserted the original defects. Additionally, breakdowns in the test and verification phase failed to identify the defects preflight despite their detectability. While both errors could have led to risk of spacecraft loss, the actions of the NASA-Boeing team were able to correct the issues and return the Starliner spacecraft safely to Earth.

There was no simple cause of the two software defects making it into flight. Software defects, particularly in complex spacecraft code, are not unexpected. However, there were numerous instances where the Boeing software quality processes either should have or could have uncovered the defects. Due to these breakdowns found in design, code and test of the software, they will require systemic corrective actions. The team has already identified a robust set of 11 top-priority corrective actions. More will be identified after the team completes its additional work.

The joint team made excellent progress for this stage of the investigation. However, it’s still too early for us to definitively share the root causes and full set of corrective actions needed for the Starliner system. We do expect to have those results at the end of February, as was our initial plan. We want to make sure we have a comprehensive understanding of what happened so that we can fully explain the root causes and better assess future work that will be needed. Most critically, we want to assure that these necessary steps are completely understood prior to determining the plan for future flights. Separate from the anomaly investigation, NASA also is still reviewing the data collected during the flight test to help determine that future plan. NASA expects a decision on this review to be complete in the next several weeks.

NASA and Boeing are committed to openly sharing the information related to the mission with the public. Thus, NASA will be holding a media teleconference at 3:30 p.m. EST Friday, Feb. 7.

In addition to these reviews, NASA is planning to perform an Organizational Safety Assessment of Boeing’s work related to the Commercial Crew Program. The comprehensive safety review will include individual employee interviews with a sampling from a cross section of personnel, including senior managers, mid-level management and supervision, and engineers and technicians at multiple sites. The review would be added to the company’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract. NASA previously completed a more limited review of the company. The goal of the Organizational Safety Assessment will be to examine the workplace culture with the commercial crew provider ahead of a mission with astronauts.

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.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner Back Home in Florida After Inaugural Flight

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is back home at the company's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, undergoing inspection after its first flight as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, known as the Orbital Flight Test. The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is back home at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, undergoing inspection after its first flight as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, known as the Orbital Flight Test.

Starliner launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. 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.

Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

NASA Update on Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test

Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel work around the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft shortly after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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.