WASHINGTON — Boeing will reverify all the software on its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew spacecraft after an ongoing investigation found “numerous” problems in the original development process that allowed at least two major problems to escape detection.
In a call with reporters Feb. 7, NASA and Boeing officials said they had made no decisions about whether a second uncrewed test flight, or Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of the spacecraft will be needed, but that there were significant issues with the spacecraft, in particular how its software was developed, that need to be corrected.
“We do think that the OFT flight had a lot of anomalies,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during the call.
Of particular concern is the software on Starliner. One issue, found immediately after separating from its upper stage, was a timer offset that prevented the spacecraft from firing its thrusters as planned to reach orbit. While the spacecraft was able to reach orbit, it consumed more fuel than planned, ruling out a planned International Space Station docking and ending the mission just two days after launch.
John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the Starliner program at Boeing, said the Starliner software is intended to initialize its mission elapsed timer from the Atlas 5 launch vehicle, but only in the “terminal count” phase of the countdown. The software, he said, lacked that terminal count requirement. “So, it polled an incorrect mission elapsed time from the launch vehicle, which then gave us an 11-hour mismatch,” he said.
The second problem, revealed Feb. 6 at a meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), was a “valve mapping error” for the thrusters in the vehicle’s service module. Those thrusters perform a “disposal burn” of the service module after separating from the crew module just before reentry.
Mulholland said the valves were configured for conditions in normal flight for that disposal burn, which, had it not been corrected, could have pushed the service module into the crew module. That could have caused the crew capsule to become unstable, requiring additional thruster firings to reorient itself, or have damaged the capsule’s heat shield.
The second error was detected during the review of the spacecraft software on the ground after the timer problem took place. Mulholland said engineers found the thruster software issue late Dec. 21, with the corrected and reverified code uploaded to the spacecraft around 5 a.m. Eastern Dec. 22, or about three hours before the spacecraft landed at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
“We went hunting immediately after our first software problem, and we found one,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing Space and Launch, of the thruster error. “I don’t think we would have found it if we hadn’t gone looking right after that first one.”
The two software problems are signs of a more fundamental issue, NASA argued. “The real problem is that we had numerous process escapes in the design, development and test cycle for software,” said Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “As we go forward, that is what we’re going to be concentrating on.”
The software, Mulholland said, is supposed to go through a “pretty standard” development process where code is written and goes through peer reviews and a series of tests leading up to formal qualification tests. “There are a number of checks along the way that are designed to uncover and correct code errors as early as you can,” he said.
However, there were “breakdowns in multiple areas in that process” discovered by the independent review team, Loverro said. “For each of these two problems that we know about, some of that breakdown was in different spots and some was in the same spot of the process.”
“The process broke down in many areas for each of these things, and that’s one of the reasons why we have to go back and do such a thorough review of all of the software,” he added.
Mulholland said that Boeing planned to review all of the software developed for Starliner, which totals about one million lines of code. “We believe we need to go back and reverify all of the software code,” he said. Boeing will consult with NASA and the independent review team to confirm that plan, but didn’t state how long that reverification process would take.
The overall investigation into the problems encountered with the mission, which also includes communications glitches not related to the software, is still in progress. Bridenstine said that the investigation should be complete by the end of the month.
He suggested the only reason NASA and Boeing held this briefing was that ASAP had been briefed about an interim report on the ongoing investigation, which ASAP then discussed at its Feb. 6 public meeting. “But in the interests of transparency, and some of the things that I saw online yesterday, I wanted to make sure that everybody knew kind of where we were in the investigation,” he said.
Because that investigation is ongoing, he said it was premature to decide whether a second uncrewed test flight will be needed, something Loverro agreed with. “You don’t go ahead and do flight tests to verify that you’ve solved problems. You do flight tests to look at a holistic picture of the system,” Loverro said. The need for another flight test, he said, will only become clear after completing the reviews and fixing the process errors.
That will include a full organizational safety assessment of Boeing, which the ASAP also revealed at its meeting. Part of the reason for that review, Loverro said, was “press reports that we’ve seen from other parts of Boeing,” an apparent reference to problems with its 737 Max airliner, which has been grounded since two crashes blamed on the plane’s new software. “There could possibly be process issues at Boeing, and so we want to understand what the culture is at Boeing that may have led to that.”
“This just continues to show that we need to be vigilant,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, of the overall investigation. “We’ll continue to take the lessons and the items they are bringing up in their very thorough review forward, and continue to get better.”
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NASA’s big moon rocket is rolling out to the launchpad for the third time – and it actually is slated to launch to the moon.
For once, NASA is ahead of schedule.
For the past month and a half, the Space Launch System rocket, which is the most powerful since the Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, has been parked in a building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There, technicians have been getting the rocket ready for its maiden flight, which could occur in two weeks.
The rollout from the building to the launchpad had been scheduled for Thursday, but NASA announced Monday that the move had been moved up to Tuesday evening. This all leads to the launch of NASA’s Artemis I mission, an uncrewed test of the giant rocket and the Orion spacecraft where astronauts will one day sit.
What happens during the rollout, and can I watch it?
It is about 4.2 miles from NASA’s huge Vehicle Assembly Building to the launchpad, which is known as Launch Complex 39B. NASA first used the pad during the Apollo program in the 1960s. The rocket and launch tower will sit on a gigantic vehicle that NASA calls a crawler-transporter. It is the same vehicle that carried the Saturn V for the moon landings, but it has been renovated and upgraded.
The crawler, indeed, crawls. Bigger in area than a baseball infield and able to carry up to 18 million pounds, it will move at a speed up to 1 mph over a gravel path to the launch site. The trip will take about 10 hours.
NASA started broadcasting the rollout at 3 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday on one of its YouTube channels when the doors of the Vehicle Assembly Building opened. The crawler and the rocket could actually start moving around 9 p.m.
What happens next?
Technicians will be making final preparations, including hooking up power and propellant lines to the rocket and the launch tower. Although the rollout is sooner, the target time for the Artemis I launch has not changed: Monday, Aug. 29 at 8:33 a.m. Eastern time.
What are the Space Launch System and Orion, and why are they important?
The Space Launch System and Orion are two of the core components of NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the surface of the moon in the coming years. Getting there requires a rocket powerful enough to push a large spacecraft out of low-Earth orbit to the moon, some 240,000 miles away. Orion is a capsule designed to carry astronauts on space voyages lasting up to a few weeks.
What problems occurred during the dress rehearsal?
NASA first rolled the SLS rocket to the launchpad in mid-March. In early April, it attempted to conduct a “wet dress rehearsal” of countdown procedures, including the loading of more than 700,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen rocket propellants. However, technical glitches, including a hydrogen leak during three rehearsal tries, cut the countdowns short.
NASA then rolled the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to conduct repairs. In June, the rocket returned to the launchpad for another attempt at the wet dress rehearsal. That attempt, on June 20, encountered a different hydrogen leak, in a fuel line connector to the rocket’s booster stage. However, the propellant tanks were fully filled for the first time, and controllers were able to continue the rehearsal until the countdown terminated with 29 seconds left. Originally, the aim was to have the countdown stop with just under 10 seconds, when the engines would start for an actual launch.
Despite the leak, NASA officials decided that all of the critical systems had been sufficiently tested and declared the test a success. The rocket headed back for the Vehicle Assembly Building once again for final preparations, including the installation of the flight termination system, which would blow up the rocket in case something went wrong during launch and eliminate the possibility of crashing into a populated area.
The flight termination system’s batteries, installed Aug. 11, are normally only rated to last for 20 days, but the part of the United States Space Force that oversees launches from Florida, granted NASA a waiver that extends the period to 25 days. This allows the Aug. 29 launch date as well as backup opportunities on Sept. 2 and Sept. 5.
NASA hopes it fixed the hydrogen leak, but it will not know for sure until the Aug. 29 countdown, when the propellant line is cooled down to ultracold temperatures, something that cannot be tested in the Vehicle Assembly Building.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Physicists and business figures gather in Vancouver to crack theory of everything
VANCOUVER — Some of the world’s brightest minds are gathering at a hotel conference centre in Vancouver this week to try to solve a question that has baffled physicists for decades.
The two pillars of modern physics — the theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity — have been used respectively to describe how matter behaves, as well as space, time and gravity.
The problem is that the theories don’t appear to be compatible, said Peter Galison, a professor in history of science and physics at Harvard University.
“These theories can’t just harmoniously live in splendid isolation, one from the other. We know our account of the world is inadequate until we figure out how to make them play nicely together,” he said in an interview after giving a talk on how black holes fit into the equation.
Galison is among several leading thinkers who arrived at the Quantum Gravity Conference for the launch a new global research collaborative known as the Quantum Gravity Institute in Vancouver.
While speakers at the conference are primarily scientists, including Nobel laureates Jim Peebles, Sir Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne, those behind the institute come from less likely fields.
The Quantum Gravity Society represents a group of business, technology and community leaders. Founding members include Frank Giustra of Fiore Group, Terry Hui of Concord Pacific, Paul Lee and Moe Kermani of Vanedge Capital and Markus Frind of Frind Estate Winery. They are joined by physicists Penrose, Abhay Ashtekar, Philip Stamp, Bill Unruh and Birgitta Whaley.
During a panel discussion, Lee said he’s been asked several times why Vancouver would host such an event or institute.
“Why Vancouver? Because we can,” Lee said.
Hui, who studied physics as part of his undergraduate degree, said organizing the conference and launching the institute felt like fulfilling a childhood dream.
“I left the field to pursue other things, you know,” he said in an interview.
“How do I put this?” he said, before likening it to being a guy who never made the high school hockey team getting to hang out in the Canucks’ locker room.
Hui said he wanted to help and saw his role as philanthropic, adding he believed it would benefit Vancouver economically.
As a non-local and the founder of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard, Galison said he’s happy to see more interdisciplinary support for exploring some of the biggest questions in science.
He called the conference an interesting event for bringing together people in technology and venture capitalism with scientists from varied fields. The launch of the institute is also meaningful, he said.
“It’s also a kickoff event for something much bigger and longer-lasting.”
As for the central question of the conference, Galison said it’s an opportunity to explore where the theories overlap and where they don’t from different angles.
“One place they intersect is clearly at the beginning of the universe, early cosmology, because when energy is incredibly compressed, when you have enormous energy densities, you’re at the limit where the bending of space and time creates so much energy that quantum effects come into play,” he said.
The theory of quantum mechanics, introduced in the 1920s, entered a world already shaken by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which inspired responses not just from scientists but from poets and philosophers, he said.
“That these things are not compatible is really unnerving,” Galison said.
Cracking the code for why isn’t something that will happen in a moment, a week or a year, he said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work,” he said. “It’s more like building a cathedral than throwing up a bicycle shed.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press
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