NASA safety panel skeptical of Starliner’s readiness for manned flight

WASHINGTON — The chairman of a NASA safety panel urged the agency not to rush into a manned test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle, calling for an independent “in-depth review” of the spacecraft’s technical problems.

Speaking at a May 25 public meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Patricia Sanders, chair of the committee, expressed skepticism that NASA and Boeing will be able to resolve known issues with the Starliner in time for a currently scheduled July 21 launch. . .

“There is still a long line of NASA processes ahead of us to determine launch readiness” for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, the first manned flight of the spacecraft with two NASA astronauts on board. “This should not be done until the security risks can be mitigated or accepted, with eyes wide open, with an appropriately compelling technical justification.”

She noted the projected launch date, but added that it was simply an “opportunity in the launch schedule” and voiced the station’s planned missions. The CFT’s current launch date would fit between a Dragon cargo mission, scheduled to depart the ISS in early July, and the Crew-7 Crew Dragon mission planned for launch in mid-August. That date, she said, “is not necessarily an acknowledgment of readiness to conduct the flight test.”

When NASA and Boeing on March 29 announced the CFT’s July launch date, a three-month delay, officials said it would give them more time to complete certification of the spacecraft, particularly its parachutes. The delay would also allow them to check the avionics systems on the spacecraft after finding a logic error in one unit.

Parachute certification remains a “follow-up item” to the launch, Sanders said, but it also raised a number of other issues, some of which she said were only recently revealed through analysis of data products as part of the process. of certification. She mentioned open risks specific to ongoing integrated software testing, as well as concerns of battery sidewall rupture, an accepted risk “only temporarily”.

“It is imperative that NASA does not succumb to pressure, even unwittingly, to launch CFT without adequately addressing all remaining impediments to certification,” she said, adding that any decision to accept risks for short-duration CFT flight should not justify the acceptance for further operational flights lasting up to six months.

“Given the number of challenges remaining for Starliner certification, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and take a look at the remaining body of work regarding flying CFT,” she concluded, arguing that the agency should bring in an independent team, as from the NASA’s Engineering and Security Center, “to take an in-depth look at items on the road to closure.”

Neither Boeing nor NASA provided many updates on the status of preparations for the CFT mission. A Boeing website dedicated to Starliner upgrades was last updated with March’s announcement of the new July launch date.

At a May 16 meeting of the NASA Advisory Board’s human exploration and operations committee, Phil McAlister, director of the commercial space division of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, reiterated the CFT’s planned launch date of no earlier than 21 July. very good progress over the last three or four months on the hardware. I think the hardware is in good shape,” he said.

However, he said certification work continued on the vehicle and it was the pace item for the CFT. The parachute check was the “long stick” at the conclusion of that work, with further parachute testing planned ahead of the mission. “This could affect the flight date,” he said. “At this point, if testing goes nominally, we should have plenty of time to set the July 21st date. But, you never know. That’s why we do these tests.”

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