In a recent development, the chair of NASA’s safety panel has raised doubts about the preparedness of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle for a crewed test flight.
Patricia Sanders, who chairs the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, has called for an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the spacecraft’s technical issues before proceeding with a launch.
Sanders expressed skepticism that NASA and Boeing would be able to address the known problems with Starliner in time for the scheduled launch on July 21.
Assessing Launch Readiness and Safety Risks
During a public meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel on May 25, Patricia Sanders emphasized the importance of thorough evaluation and risk mitigation.
She stressed that NASA should not rush into the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, which would be the first crewed flight of Starliner with two NASA astronauts on board. Sanders explained:
“There remains a long line of NASA processes still ahead to determine launch readiness. That should not be flown until safety risks can either be mitigated or accepted, eyes wide open, with an appropriately compelling technical rationale.”
Sanders acknowledged the projected launch date but cautioned that it merely represented an opportunity in the launch schedule and the planned missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
She made it clear that the current launch date for CFT did not necessarily indicate readiness for the flight test.
Challenges and Certification Process
When NASA and Boeing announced the July launch date for CFT on March 29, they acknowledged a three-month slip to allow more time for certification of the spacecraft, particularly regarding its parachutes. The delay was also intended to facilitate thorough checks of the avionics systems after a logic error was discovered in one of the units.
Sanders highlighted the significance of parachute certification as a crucial milestone for the launch.
However, she raised several additional concerns, some of which were only recently uncovered through data analysis as part of the certification process. These concerns included ongoing integrated software testing and potential risks of battery sidewall rupture, which were temporarily accepted.
Avoiding Pressure and Ensuring Comprehensive Certification
Sanders emphasized the importance of not succumbing to any pressure, even unconscious, to launch CFT without adequately addressing all remaining impediments to certification. She stressed that any decision to accept risks for the short-duration CFT flight should not be considered justification for accepting the same risks for later operational flights, which could last up to six months.
To ensure a thorough assessment of the work remaining for the CFT mission, Sanders concluded that NASA should bring in an independent team, such as the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, to conduct a detailed analysis of the outstanding items.
Updates and Certification Progress
Both Boeing and NASA have provided limited updates on the progress of preparations for the CFT mission. The Boeing website dedicated to Starliner updates was last updated with the announcement of the new July launch date in March.
During a May 16 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s commercial space division, mentioned the planned CFT launch date of no earlier than July 21.
McAlister acknowledged the positive progress made on the hardware over the past few months but highlighted ongoing certification work as the key factor determining the CFT timeline. Parachute verification specifically was identified as a critical aspect, with further testing planned before the mission. The outcome of these tests could potentially impact the flight date.
With technical issues still to be addressed and certification milestones to be achieved, NASA and Boeing must ensure the spacecraft’s safety and readiness before proceeding with the highly anticipated launch.