NASA launches new investigation into troubled Boeing spacecraft

The Starliner on the ground in New Mexico after returning from its close call in orbit.
The Starliner on the ground in New Mexico after returning from its close call in orbit.
Image: AP/Bill Ingalls/NASA
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The US space agency will conduct a new, formal investigation into the troubled flight test of a Boeing spacecraft intended to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

The investigation means additional scrutiny of the aerospace giant as it tries to restore its reputation as a leader in advanced engineering, and months of additional delay before Boeing is able to resume tests on the Starliner vehicle and bring it into service. Officials said today that they aren’t sure whether a second uncrewed flight will be necessary, or when they will know.

In January, the company reserved $410 million of its earnings to cover potential losses associated with the failure and a potential second flight test, representing about 8% of the nearly $5 billion NASA has paid Boeing for the project.

The original operational flight test, in December 2019, saw an uncrewed Boeing Starliner fail to rendezvous with the International Space Station due to errors in its software. Afterward, an independent review team led by the former dean of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a retired US Air Force general uncovered serious flaws in how Boeing tested its spacecraft systems, issuing 61 recommendations to improve the company’s process.

“We could have lost a spacecraft twice during this mission,” Doug Loverro, the NASA executive in charge of human space exploration, told reporters. “Thankfully, the spacecraft was well-enough designed and the controllers at Johnson are well-enough trained that we were able to recover it.”

He declared the test a “high visibility close call,” which in NASA safety parlance means an incident that could have, but did not, lead to a total mission failure and financial losses.

Past close calls include a 2013 incident where an Italian astronaut found his spacesuit filling with water during a a spacewalk outside the International Space Station and, more prosaically, incidents where NASA technicians at work in high places have fallen, but been restrained by safety gear that prevented a fatal plunge.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the other participant in NASA’s commercial crew program, which aims to develop an astronaut-transportation service, experienced its own mishap investigation when its Crew Dragon suffered a test anomaly last year. Since then, it has successfully proceeded through its test program in anticipation of flying a crewed mission no earlier than May 2020.

NASA encourages investigations into close calls in order to prevent more serious accidents, which are called mishaps in NASA parlance. Formally declaring an incident in either category will lead to a more comprehensive investigation by a new, independent NASA team to determine the root cause of the problem.

The agency is still in the process of formalizing that team, as well as conducting a separate organizational safety assessment of Boeing. NASA regulations require a team of at least three members to provide a “description explaining why the mishap or close call occurred including all findings such as proximate causes, root causes, contributing factors, failed barriers, observations, and the evidence upon which the findings are based.”

NASA said it would begin making changes by appointing a new lead to oversee Boeing’s software development and embed more of its own software engineers in Boeing’s teams in order to better understand the development process. It has also not yet decided if it will release the initial list of safety recommendations produced by the independent review team, as requested by reporters.

Loverro said he decided to launch the investigation after the initial review made it clear to him that the relevant statutes required it—and because of a gut check.

“Immediately outside my door is a wall chart with every incident that has happened in human spaceflight, both Russian and US, and other nations, and they all fit into one of these categories, high visibility close call, loss of mission, loss of crew,” Loverro said. “One evening when I was looking at that chart, [I thought] what happened here needs to be captured so that future leaders will have the benefits of our hindsight. Both the regulatory requirement that I do it, and more the fact that my stomach says, when looking at this chart, this needs to be done.”

Update: Language in this story has been changed to reflect new information from NASA clarifying the nature of the investigation.