32 thoughts on “Starliner”

  1. Starliner MAX, hopefully, it’s not as big a problem as the 737 MAX, but clearly Boeing’s culture and processes have degenerated.

  2. The gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Boeing is snakebit. I suspect that ole MacDAC corporate culture.

  3. And in other related news, Boeing has had to halt trading in its shares this afternoon.

    Entirely related to the 737 Max news, of course. No one has really picked up on Eric’s story yet. But Boeing can certainly drive that right off the first few pages of Google news returns if they find a way to kill astronauts on Starliner’s first crewed flight.

    1. Can you imagine the former Boeing employees, that are now civil servants working for NASA, will set aside any bias and ignore the stock they own while deciding to risk flying a crew on the next Starliner launch?

      1. As a former civil servant at FAA/AST, I can assure you that we were required to report any such holdings every year on form OGE-450. If I recall correctly, you and/or your spouse were not allowed to own more than 1% of the outstanding stock shares of any firm your agency dealt with or regulated.

        It’s a pretty safe bet that no one who owns more than 1% of Boeing is a civil servant.

        1. If I recall correctly, you and/or your spouse were not allowed to own more than 1% of the outstanding stock shares of any firm your agency dealt with or regulated.

          I may be misreading your statement. Is that 1% of all the shares of a particular company, such as Boeing, or is it 1% of your investments can’t be in shares from a company you regulate?

          1. 1% of the shares of a particular company. In the case of Boeing, one would need to own 5.63 million shares, which closed yesterday at $323.05. For the numerically challenged, that translates to $1.818 billion.

  4. If this is true (I tend to be a bit suspicious of leakers) then this is potentially a much larger problem than the timer issues or neglecting to put the parachute pin in, or their problems with the service/abort module.

    I can definitely see requiring a reflight at this point.

  5. There’s no reason DM-2 can’t be converted to a crew rotation flight. Hurley and Behnken are both exerienced ISS crew members. The DM-2 capsule only has 2 seats, but has seat rails to hold four. We know there’s at least one spare seat that just went for a ride on IFA and came back in one piece. Nicole Mann can just switch rides. Hey, she was already swapped out for Boe a while back…

    1. Ah, but, if DM-2 is converted to a crew rotation flight (I agree that it probably easily can be) that opens up some possibilities for serious delays – training, planning, etc. The result – Boeing gets the time it needs to sort out Starliner and bring home the flag. Boeing has a lot more political clout than SpaceX, and desperately needs such a “win” right now.

      I suspected politics at play due to the way NASA glossed over Starliner’s parachute pin oops, and the downplaying of the timer issue and resulting problems on the orbital flight. NASA was talking as if the issues were not too serious, when no one, them included, actually knew what had happened.

      So, I do worry that changes to DM2 will result in fake dealys for political purposes. I very much hope I’m wrong, because in a rational world, DM-2 certainly could and should be a crew rotation flight.

      Also, even if SpaceX can’t persuade Tesla (which I think produces the seats) to cough up an extra one, even flying DM-2 with just 3 crew is more useful to crew rotation than Soyuz, which only carries at most 2 US astronauts per flight.

      1. NASA has already made Starliner CFT a crew rotation flight to cover the gap between April and September, and has been talking about doing same with Dragon DM-2. I think NASA’s best bet is to send up DM-2 at the end of April, with a plan for it to stay put until either Starliner shows up (June at the earliest) or until the Soyuz crew rotation flight arrives in September. Dragon 2 USCV-1 is schedued to arrive in December, with 4 crew to begin permanent ISS crew of 7. We know it’s all politics but NASA needs to think about what will happen if CFT has to abort, or worse, kills its crew, or worse still, collides with ISS when the more or less untested back-off algorithm fails.

    2. Well, it’s still a test flight, and they likely don’t want to risk any more astronauts than they have to.

      I am curious, though, about just how extensive the training really needs to be for veteran astronauts who’ve been on the ISS before.

  6. The main problem seems to be “[t]he NASA source said eight or more thrusters on the service module failed at one point and that one thruster never fired at all” if I read the article correctly. Boeing also points out that the thrusters were fired beyond their expected design lifetime.

    The one that failed to fire seems like an outright problem. But if the other 7 failed from being abused is that necessarily a bad thing? They never could have raised the capsule to the right orbit anyway. If more than one had failed to fire, yeah, that’s a more serious issue, or if they had failed within their design constraints, that too.

    1. It’s too early in the investigation to have a firm conclusion about whether or not it’s good to go for crew without another uncrewed test. Just saying that it is now (as opposed to the immediate aftermath) questionable.

      1. I’m surprised that the thrusters don’t seem to have a “design life” that includes burning through lots of onboard fuel, as could happen if the maneuvering thrusters are having to compensate for an OMS failure by doing long, low-thrust burns. I’ll bet Dragon’s thrusters, and Starship’s, are designed to last hundreds of flights over several decades of hard use. If I was an astronaut, I’d be thinking that the engineers designed the capsule to be able to barely, just barely, meet its mission requirements, and I’d wonder “Just how disposable is this thing?”

        If you car has to return to the pits after one lap to swap out worn and broken parts, it’s not likely to finish the race, much less become a reliable workhorse.

        1. Let’s not forget the thrusters on the Starliner service module are discarded after 1 mission, so may have a derated service life. Only Dragon gets all its thrusters back.

  7. It was always idiotic to have the stance that Boeing SL was ready for a crew flight. At the very least NASA and Boeing should have been saying they would review the flight and make decisions in the future.

    So Boeing learned a few things:

    * It needs to fix it’s timer (AKA software design, coding and QA). Failure to perform the very first thing on the mission seems like a fundamental problem.
    * Why did they have command and communication problems? Huge red flag.
    * It needs to investigate and fix it’s handling of thruster firings. Being able to run them to failure seems ominous if not definitely wrong
    * It needs to build better thrusters that do not fail under somewhat greater than expected usage.
    * It needs to question it’s development methodology… why didn’t these things show up in a ground test, or why didn’t they fly more tests to find these things. NASA should learn this lesson too.

    1. * Why did they have command and communication problems? Huge red flag.

      IIRC, the communications outage occurred about the time when the capsule was approaching the northernmost portion of the initial orbit. The communications during that part of the orbit was likely provided by TDRSS. I don’t know if the Air Force Satellite Control Network is interoperable with the ISS or the CST-100. If it is, then range time could’ve been available using Thule B or Oakhanger. I suspect it isn’t compatible, though.

      I want to see a ground trace of where the CST-100 was during that blackout period and compare that to TDRSS coverage. Being in the same orbital plane as the ISS, you’d think there would be full coverage. However, I want to see what Boeing arranged in terms of TDRSS coverage. They may not have had much bandwidth available due to poor planning.

  8. What boggled my mind were the stats on the propulsion system…

    28 85 lbf reaction control system thrusters? 20 1,500 lbf orbital maneuvering thrusters? Minuteman III’s post-boost vehicle has 12 attitude control thrusters, and a single axial engine (equivalent to the orbital maneuvering thrusters. Peacekeeper had eight 70 lbf attitude control engines, and a single 2,563 lbf axial engine. Even Apollo had only 16 x 100 lbf reaction control thrusters, and a single 20,500 lbf main engine on the CSM. The latter engine was originally designed for the direct ascent lunar landing architecture, and would have been used to take the CSM off the surface of the Moon and inject it into a Moon-Earth trajectory.

    What is going on with all of these thrusters on Starship? It has to detract from reliability – and apparently did.

    When Starship goes Commercial Crew, its launch and reentry will be regulated by FAA/AST. If the normal mode of operation is to require the Starship’s orbital maneuvering thrusters to complete orbital insertion, they’re going to be in a heap of trouble from a regulatory point of view. They’re going to have to go through an exhaustive (and exhausting) exercise to convince AST that they have absolutely solved all of the problems on this flight, and that they do not pose a public safety hazard.

    As the new Chief Engineer at AST, I was agog (and aghast) at the number of “what ifs” the office was capable of producing to stand in the way of the first launch and reentry of Dragon. And that was before it had ever flown. Now Boeing has a system that has flown (finally), and had “anomalies.” That, to AST, is worse than never having flown.

    I really pity the poor Boeing bastards.

    1. What is going on with all of these thrusters on Starship? It has to detract from reliability – and apparently did.

      Not necessarily. It depends on if reliability is based on having all thrusters or enough thrusters. In the former, you do have more parts to fail and, in the latter, you have more reliability by options to perform the maneuver. Another aspect is that with the exception of Apollo, your other examples do not have long duration missions.

      This is the thinking I observed while working at NASA, but I don’t necessarily agree the line of thought is appropriate for any and all systems. Alas, it took a good deal of time for the FAA to accept that 2 engines provided acceptable reliability for long duration over water travel. Now that it does, planes like the A380 and 747, with their 4 engines, are no longer preferred. Yeah, ETOPS has been around for awhile but only incrementally increased allowable durations.

      1. Another aspect is that with the exception of Apollo, your other examples do not have long duration missions.

        Hey now. Minuteman III and Peacekeepers thrusters had perhaps the most stringent requirements of all, operating reliably until the end of human civilization.

  9. Something else to remember is, there’s a route to a Starlinerless crew rotation scenario. SpaceX is manufacturing 3 Dragon 2 spacecraft per year, with assigned Falcon 9s. So 30 Dragon 2s will fly during the remaining life of ISS, 10 with crew, 20 without. That comapares to a total of only 10 Starliners, all crewed. So SpaceX would be in a position to refit 10 cargo Dragons as crew Dragons. NASA could then make up the upmass with a few extra Cygnuses (Cygni?!) and make up the downmass with a few extra Dream Chasers. I think it’s probably too late to replace Starliner with a crewed Dream Chaser, but you never know.

    1. Note: The cargo versions of Dragon 2 are supposed to be used five times with modest refurbishment. So most cargo flights won’t be on new Dragons.

      1. “…supposed to be…” but they’re not built yet. Right now SpaceX is beginning fabrication of CRS-21, supposed to fly in August, and which is expected to be the next Dragon 2 to fly after DM-2 and before USCV-1 in December. After that, a crew Dragon is supposed to fly every December until ISS is splashed.

        The fact is, if cargo Dragon can be used five times with modest refurbishment, than so can crew Dragon, and under the scenario I imagined, NASA would have to allow it. Even if they don’t, there’s plenty of lead time for SpaceX to build 20 crew Dragons over the next 10 years instead of only 10.

        What’s the likelihood Boeing will quit commercial crew like they just quit XSP? I don’t know, but it’s non-zero. If they do, Dragon, Cygnus, and Dream Chaser can easily take up the slack.

        Funny scenario: Three years from now, cargo Dragon will be lifted to orbit in the cargo bay of a cargo Starship, and be released within sight of ISS. When it’s time to come down, a Starship will approach ISS and collect it for landing. The Dragon won’t be exposed to launch and EDL stresses, so it won’t even need to be refurbished, just refueled.

    1. The Shuttle Orbiter had redundant thrusters because they had many failure modes and often did fail. A common problem is ice build up in the nozzle. This was prevented by covering the thrusters on the ground to prevent the Florida humidity from getting in the nozzle and then freezing up. If you got ice, then one mitigation is to face that thruster into the sun to obtain a melting point temperature and remove the ice. Once removed, the thruster could work nominally. That’s just one example of what could have happened here and why you have multiple thrusters.

      This is really one of the good reasons to have a flight test to find these types of problems (the alternatives are piece part test in simulated environment or analysis), and the remedy is often the type that doesn’t require another integrated flight test to rectify. However, the failures could be a more critical design flaw or another software issue. Again, those things are better detected in an integrated test like this yet not as easy to rectify.

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