Boeing Safety Standards Questioned Following NASA Starliner Incident Review

A NASA investigation has recommended Boeing complete an Organisational Safety Assessment.
Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

An investigation launched following the anomalous Starliner Orbital Flight Test has called for an Organisational Safety Assessment of Boeing. The report specifically identified critical software defects that could have led to the loss of the spacecraft.

Following the anomalous Starliner Orbital Flight Test in December 2019, a joint NASA-Boeing investigation was launched to ascertain the root cause of the primary issues that plagued the spacecraft. During this investigation, the team identified three specific concerns.

  1. An error with the Mission Elapsed Timer. This anomaly resulted in the spacecraft’s boosters failing to fire following its deployment. This temporarily stranded it in a suborbital trajectory that could have led to the loss of the spacecraft.
  2. A software issue within the Service Module (SM) Disposal Sequence that would have resulted in an anomalous reentry sequence. Again, although remedied before reentry, this issue could have led to the loss of the spacecraft.
  3. Intermittent Space-to-Ground communications issues that impeded the Flight Control team’s ability to communicate and send commands to the spacecraft.

The investigation found that at least, the first and second errors had been caused by a breakdown of the “test and verification phase.” This resulted in both code errors being added to flight hardware that would eventually be launched aboard the Starliner Orbital Flight Test. Despite allowing for the fact that software defects do occur in complex spacecraft code, NASA has questioned why these defects were not picked up earlier.

“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.”

Although the investigation is still underway, NASA has already recommended an Organisational Safety Assessment of Boeing procedures. The agency had previously recommended both commercial crew partners (SpaceX and Boeing) conduct these assessments after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was filmed smoking weed on the Joe Rogan podcast. While SpaceX completed its assessment, the Boeing assessment was not completed in full due to budgetary concerns.

In addition to the Organisational Safety Assessment, NASA has identified a set of “11 top-priority corrective actions”. The agency hopes that this will assist Boeing to remedy breakdowns discovered in the manner in which the company designs, codes and tests flight software.

NASA hopes to fully conclude the investigation and release its results by the end of February 2020.

Source: NASA Shares Initial Findings from Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test Investigation | accessed 07/02/2020

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.