Boeing announced today (June 1) that they were standing down from the planned July 21 test flight of their Starliner capsule - the Crewed Flight Test, which would be the last test flight - to allow more thorough investigations of some issues that have been discovered as preparations for the flight have been moving forward.
Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Starliner, said two spacecraft problems were discovered before Memorial Day weekend and that the company spent the holiday investigating them. After internal discussions that included Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun, the company decided to delay the test flight that would carry NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station.
The problems are two things that seem like they had to have been looked at in
the past, conceivably many times and it seems weird they'd show up over this
past holiday weekend and not long ago. The first, and possibly the
easiest to resolve, involves the parachutes deployed for landing the
capsule. Starliner's design employs what they call "soft links" in the
lines that run from the ship to its parachutes. Boeing discovered that
these were not as strong as they previously believed.
During a normal flight, these substandard links would not be an issue. But Starliner's parachute system is designed to land a crew safely in case one of the three parachutes fails. However, due to the lower failure load limit with these soft links, if one parachute fails, it's possible the lines between the spacecraft and its remaining two parachutes would snap due to the extra strain.
While having the capsule lose all three parachutes when one got damaged or destroyed would absolutely be A Bad Thing, it seems like changing out the soft links for a stronger substitute wouldn't be a major issue. Delay? Sure. But there's a limited number of those links in one area of the capsule. The second problem is more widespread and might involve major rework.
The second issue involves P-213 glass cloth tape that is wrapped around wiring harnesses throughout the vehicle. These cables run everywhere, and Nappi said there are hundreds of feet of these wiring harnesses. The tape is intended to protect the wiring from nicks. However, during recent tests, it was discovered that under certain circumstances possible in flight, this tape is flammable.
Boeing has flown two uncrewed test flights of Starliner, the disastrous first flight in December of '19, which led to massive changes and their second test flight just over a year ago. Since the parachute soft links will only be tested to the worst case in the event one parachute is lost, those flights tell us nothing about their performance. In contrast, the P-213 glass cloth tape was tested in real flight conditions. Whether or not that includes the "certain circumstances" under which the tape is flammable isn't said.
That's a big question mark. If the answer would be to change the tape to something else, that would entail complete disassembly of the Starliner capsule and replacing all the wiring harnesses. My guess is that it would be faster to build another capsule from scratch than to disassemble, fix and reassemble, along with about a bazillion tests to verify they didn't break something.
Boeing vice president Mark Nappi, and program manager for Starliner said "Safety is always our top priority, and that drives this decision" to stand down from the July 21 mission. In my view, Boeing can't afford another screw-up, but Boeing is nothing if not old school government military/space contractor. There are observers who think if Boeing hadn't bid on the contract that led to SpaceX's enormously successful Crew Dragon and Boeing's equally unsuccessful Starliner that the whole Commercial Crew Program wouldn't have happened. Simply because Boeing's name added the credibility the program needed.
Going back through my Starliner posts to find the couple of links to old posts, I see the recurring theme that Boeing needs to pay more attention safety culture as well as quality culture. This source article on Ars Technica says much the same.
Most likely, Starliner will see another significant delay in this test flight. These new problems are likely to ratchet up concerns from outside observers about the safety culture at Boeing. Last week, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel urged NASA to bring in independent experts to assess the viability of Starliner.
“Given the number of remaining challenges to certification of Starliner, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and take a measured look at the remaining body of work with respect to flying CFT,” Patricia Sanders, chair of the committee, said on May 25. She believes NASA should bring in an independent team, such as from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, “to take a deep look at the items on the path to closure.”
The Commercial Crew program is being funded through a fixed-price contract. Boeing received a $4.2 billion award from NASA in 2014, but due to ongoing delays—initially, Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon were supposed to fly in 2017—Boeing has already taken cumulative charges against its earnings of $900 million. Nappi said Thursday that it is too early to say if these issues will result in additional financial charges to the program.
If the program continues as a money loser for Boeing, it's conceivable that could force Boeing to abandon the Starliner, although that might involve repaying NASA some money. It comes down to which costs them the least.
Screen capture from NASA video of the second flight test of the Starliner, May of '22.