Boeing and Starliners have a chance at redemption

Boeing and Starliners have a chance at redemption ...

It had been a bad year for Boeing, but they could finally look ahead to the future with a little bit of hope. Boeing's newest and much-ballyhooed aircraft was grounded around the world after the second crash of a MAX aircraft, which killed all 149 passengers and eight crew members. Orders were canceled. Billions of dollars was lost. Families were angry. The company's space unit had a chance to save the year by the end of the year. The Starliners was built by Boeing to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. It had not been easy. Boeing's space division had been accustomed to cost-plus contracts, but was competing with SpaceX for space systems development. Boeing had to watch costs and eat overruns with a fixed price contract. Boeing had a chance to defeat its rival, even though Starliner was sitting atop an Atlas V rocket. The Crew Dragon had just completed an uncrewed flight test, and the mission had gone well. Crew Dragon exploded during a ground test in April. The crew program was affected by the disaster. During the summer, Musk was distracted by his project. In September, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine publically chastised Musk, asking him to deliver on Crew Dragon for NASA and the American taxpayer. If Starliner aced its flight test in December, Boeing had a chance to win. A similar vehicle was in the final stages of preparation for its own flight. NASA could probably sign off on a crew flight test by the end of the year. Boeing beat out its upstart rival to the prestige of launching the first astronauts into space from US soil in nearly a decade. The hopes soared as the Atlas V rocket took off. After a smooth separation from the rocket, time ran out for Boeing. The Starliner was nearly lost shortly after launch. When it separated from the rocket, it captured the wrong "mission elapsed time" from its Atlas V launch vehicle, but instead of picking up this time during the terminal phase of the countdown, it grabbed data 11 hours off the correct time. The spacecraft was forced to burn too much fuel and fire its thrusters because of this. Plans for an essential space station docking were canceled.Then, just before the vehicle was due to perform a de-orbit burn and return to Earth, engineers discovered a mapping error in the software for a set of thrusters on Starliner's service module The service module wouldn't have performed a proper disposal burn if this hadn't been caught. The service module and crew capsule could have collided if Starliners' thrusters had fired. The Starliner made it home safely after its aborted flight. NASA demanded a major revamping of Boeing's flight software after declaring the mission a "high visibility close call". Boeing agreed to pay for a second test flight, at a cost of $410 million, out of its own resources. This was a demoralizing time for the Starliner team. They had failed. They dug into Starliner's more than one million lines of code to look for errors. Chris Ferguson, a former NASA Astronaut, joined Boeing in 2011. This was hard and tiring work, perhaps no more so than for him. Ferguson moved to a senior position at Boeing just months after commanding the final space shuttle mission, which was well received by the public. Before the final shuttle flight, Ferguson helped organize the handover of an American flag to the space station, saying that the first crew to return on a US vehicle would claim the flag.Ferguson set up a game of capture the flag knowing he was moving to Boeing. He was going to go back and get that flag, he was the public figure for Starliner. Ferguson had to step aside after the first aborted Starliner mission. His family had planned events around his flight date for a long time. But it kept slipping. Ferguson said he wouldn't fly on Starliners because of family issues. He wasn't going to miss important family events, such as weddings. The pilot of the final space shuttle flight remained at NASA, unlike Ferguson, who led the Boeing team. The first Crew Dragon mission to the space station was commanded by him. Ferguson is still the public face of the Boeing mission even though he is no longer flying on Starliner. Ferguson has been digging into the work for the last 20 months. Ferguson said that they have scrutinized every aspect of Starliner's flight software. Mission end-to-end verification tests have been done. There is an enormous amount of test script added to the way that we manage flight software. The Starliner team has a chance for redemption, if all goes well, after they upgraded their communications system. The rocket is on its way. There is about a 50 percent chance of bad weather. The docking of the space station is scheduled for 1:45 pm Wednesday if the mission launches on time. Boeing scrubbed Tuesday's launch because of an issue with a valve in Starliner's reaction control system. It is possible that the launch could take place as early as Wednesday.

You may also like: