NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel dropped a bombshell yesterday by urging the space agency to set up an independent review of Boeing’s Starliner program—a mere 57 days before NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore are scheduled to ride aboard the spacecraft on a vital demonstration mission to the ISS.
The CFT mission—the first crewed mission of Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 reusable spacecraft—is currently scheduled for July 21, but that doesn’t mean the capsule is fit for human passenges, as the safety panel explained during a public meeting of the committee, held on Thursday, May 25.
“While there is a projected launch date for CFT, this date represents an opportunity in the launch schedule and ISS manifest and not necessarily an acknowledgment of readiness to conduct that flight test,” Pat Sanders, chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), said during the meeting, as reported by Space Policy Online.
NASA is eager to see Starliner validated for human spaceflight, joining SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as a successful member of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), but “there should not be an impatience either in certifying the second provider until certification requirements can be achieved,” Sanders said, saying a “number of open risks” remain unresolved, including issues with the capsule’s parachute system.
This is the latest hiccup in a long string of dismaying setbacks for Boeing, as it seeks to deliver on the $4.2 billion Starliner project. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program began in 2014, with the agency tagging SpaceX and Boeing to develop two different vehicles for launching astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX made good, delivering Crew Dragon in 2020, but Boeing has yet to deliver its Starliner spacecraft as planned.
Indeed, the two programs can’t compare. During a botched demo in 2019, Starliner failed to reach its intended orbit on account of software errors, and a scrubbed launch in 2021 was traced to corroded valves in the capsule’s propulsion system. Boeing took a major step forward with the 2022 Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission, in which Starliner reached the ISS and performed a successful return to Earth. This set the stage for CFT, which was supposed to happen this past February, and then in March, and now on July 21. But now this date might be in jeopardy should NASA take ASAP up on its recommendation to form an independent review.
In terms of the open risks, Sanders said some have been on the to-do list for quite some time, while some have only cropped up recently. In addition to the parachutes remaining a “pacing item for certification,” Boeing still needs to complete integrated software testing, while a “battery sidewall rupture risk has not yet been mitigated,” she said, adding that this “risk has been accepted for the interim only, not for the long term.” Essentially, she’s warning NASA not to rush into the crewed mission until it’s absolutely certain that Starliner is safe for astronauts.
Both NASA and Boeing have been quiet about Starliner since the updated launch date was announced this past March. Starliner is “largely ready for flight,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters at the time. He admitted that tests with the parachute system still needed to be completed, but the team has “no issues or concerns.”
It’s critical that NASA “not succumb to pressure, even unconsciously,” to get CFT off the ground before “adequately addressing all of the remaining impediments to certification,” Sanders said yesterday. To that end, the safety committee is encouraging NASA to “take a step back and take a measured look” at the unresolved items in advance of the CFT mission. She said NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center, which formed in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, might be a good choice for the review.
We’ll have to wait and see what happens next. NASA wants to get Starliner certified sooner rather than later, but the space agency is not under intense pressure to do so given the reliability of Crew Dragon. Given Boeing’s poor performance to date on the program, and given ASAP’s advice, perhaps NASA should heed the recommendation. Human lives are literally at stake.