Starliner after landing
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft after its Dec. 22 landing that ended a truncated uncrewed test flight. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Although an independent review team has wrapped up its investigation into issues with last December’s uncrewed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, NASA says it will be some time before it decides if a second uncrewed test flight is needed.

NASA and Boeing officials, speaking during a media teleconference March 6, said there is still significant work ahead as the company addresses 61 corrective actions identified by that review into the Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT), which suffered at least three significant issues with software and communications.

Those corrective actions will be worked on “over the next several months in order to make sure that, when we decide to fly again, we can fly safely,” said Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Loverro added that he was formally designating that OFT mission a “high-visibility close call” in NASA parlance, which is defined in agency procedures as one it “judges to possess a high degree of safety risk, programmatic impact or public, media, or political interest including, but not limited to, mishaps and close calls affecting flight hardware or software, or completion of critical mission milestones.”

The “close call” designation is below that of a mishap, but still requires a NASA review. “It’s the lowest level of a call we make in something like this,” he said. “We can all agree that this was a close call. We could have lost a spacecraft twice during this mission.”

That designation, he said, allows the agency to formally collect recommendations and lessons learned and triggers an “organizational root cause assessment” to look at processes both at NASA and Boeing that may have contributed to the problems in the flight. Doing so will make sure “we truly do learn from this event and that we know how to fix it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The 61 corrective actions found by the independent review team do not mean there are 61 separate problems with the mission. John Mulholland, vice president and manager of the Starliner program at Boeing, said the panel reviewed the three problems previously discussed: a software issue that caused the spacecraft’s mission elapsed timer to be off by 11 hours, an incorrect software mapping for thrusters in the spacecraft’s service module, and intermittent communications problems.

“There were 61 recommendations. They don’t map to 61 design issues,” added Jim Chilton, senior vice president at Boeing Space and Launch.

Neither NASA nor Boeing, though, would immediately release the list of 61 corrective actions or give other details about them. Loverro, asked by reporters several times during the call to release that list, said “we hadn’t had that conversation with Boeing” yet about making the list public.

Implementing the corrective actions and carrying out the reviews triggered by the high-visibility close call notification will take time, and Loverro said there was no decision on whether Boeing would need to perform a second uncrewed test flight or move directly to a crewed test flight as originally planned.

“Quite frankly, right now, we don’t know” if Boeing will need a second uncrewed test flight, he said. The company needs to first come back to NASA with a plan and schedule for implementing those corrective actions, and then carry out that work for inspection by NASA.

“We are still a ways away from that, and I can’t even tell you what the schedule is for making that decision,” Loverro said. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said there was a review scheduled for the end of March for NASA to examine Boeing’s plan to implement those corrective actions.

“At the end of the day, what we have got to decide is, based upon the work that Boeing will do, do we have enough confidence to say we are ready to fly with a crew, or do we believe that we need another uncrewed test flight?” Loverro said.

He declined to discuss any contractual implications of requiring a second uncrewed test flight, although Boeing announced in January it took a $410 million charge in earnings related to its commercial crew program, in part to cover costs of a potential OFT reflight.

“For us, it’s not that complicated,” Chilton said. “Boeing stands ready to repeat an OFT.”

The implementation of the corrective actions, and the reviews linked to the close call designation, should not affect SpaceX as it prepares for its Demo-2 crewed test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. “There’s no known crossover to the SpaceX demonstration at this point,” Loverro said, beyond any changes in NASA procedures. “I don’t foresee any real impact out of this to the SpaceX schedule.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...