NASA and Boeing have completed major reviews of the company’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test in December 2019 and are continuing with preparations to refly the test, designated Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2), to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“NASA and Boeing have completed a tremendous amount of work reviewing the issues experienced during the uncrewed flight test of Starliner,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator at NASA. “Ultimately, everything we’ve found will help us improve as we move forward in the development and testing of Starliner, and in our future work with commercial industry as a whole.”

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The joint NASA-Boeing Independent Review team completed the final assessment into the intermittent space-to-ground communication issue detected during the first uncrewed Orbital Flight Test of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The review team previously completed its investigation into the two other primary anomalies experienced during the test.

With the completion of the investigation’s third and final focus area, the review team identified a total of 80 recommendations that Boeing, in collaboration with NASA, is addressing, with action plans for each already well under way. Although the full list of recommendations is company sensitive and proprietary, the categories of the corrective and preventative actions are as follows:  

  • Testing and Simulation: 21 recommendations including the need for greater hardware and software integration testing; performance of an end-to-end “run for record” test prior to each flight using the maximum amount of flight hardware available; reviewing subsystem behaviors and limitations; and addressing any identified simulation or emulation gaps.
  • Requirements: 10 recommendations including an assessment of all software requirements with multiple logic conditions to ensure test coverage.
  • Process and Operational Improvements: 35 recommendations including modifications to change board documentation; bolstering required participants in peer reviews and test data reviews; and increasing the involvement of subject matter experts in safety critical areas.
  • Software: 7 recommendations including updating the software code and associated artifacts to correct the Mission Elapsed Timer Epoch and Service Module disposal anomalies; and making the antenna selection algorithm more robust.
  • Knowledge Capture and Hardware Modification: 7 recommendations such as organizational changes to the safety reporting structure; amending the Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) approach; and the addition of an external Radio Frequency (RF) filter to reject out-of-band interference.

As a result of this work and Boeing’s separate analysis, the company proactively announced in April it would fly a second orbital test at no cost to the government to prove the Starliner system meets NASA’s requirements, including docking to the space station.

Boeing and NASA have asked the independent review team to remain engaged as a valuable and important partner in the Starliner’s path to crewed flight. Additionally, lessons learned from the Starliner’s first uncrewed flight test are being shared across the human spaceflight community to strengthen the industry as a whole.

“As vital as it is to understand the technical causes that resulted in the flight test not fulfilling all of its planned objectives, it’s equally as important to understand how those causes connect to organizational factors that could be contributors,” said Jurczyk. “That’s why NASA also decided to perform a high visibility close call review that looked at our combined teams.”

NASA has now also completed the high visibility close call investigation to specifically review the organizational factors within NASA and Boeing that could have contributed to the flight test anomalies. The close call investigation team, established in March, was tasked with developing recommendations that could be used to prevent similar close calls from occurring in the future.

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The close call team built off the technical findings of the joint independent review team related to the software coding errors made during the development of the spacecraft. The team also received additional briefings, held subject matter expert discussions and conducted interviews across the organizations.

Based on the findings, the team developed the following recommendations for the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to incorporate into future programs:

  • Require that the systems engineering management plan delivered by each contractor contain specific requirements related to the contractor’s management approach.
  • Ensure that NASA reviews and approves the contractor’s hazard verification test plans prior to test execution.
  • Ensure NASA independent validation and verification (IV&V) teams provide insight to contractor IV&V agents.
  • Implement an approach that ensures alternate standards are reviewed and approved prior to beginning development work.
  • Develop a best practices document for use by future programs that implement the shared accountability model used in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
  • Evaluate Boeing’s actions developed by the joint independent review team for applicability post-certification.

With the development of these recommendations, the high visibility close call investigation has concluded. 

“I can’t stress enough how committed the Boeing team has been throughout this process,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA. “Boeing has worked collaboratively with NASA to perform these detailed assessments. To be clear, we have a lot more work ahead, but these significant steps help us move forward on the path toward resuming our flight tests.”

Boeing and NASA have not yet established a launch date for OFT-2.

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