Five days before Christmas, in 2019, Boeing could finally look ahead to the future with a little bit of hope.
It had been a miserable year for the massive aerospace company. After the second crash of a 737 MAX aircraft in March killed all 149 passengers and eight crew members, Boeing’s newest and much ballyhooed aircraft was grounded around the world. Orders were canceled. Billions of dollars were lost. Families were understandably aggrieved. Boeing would eventually be charged with fraud and forced to pay more than $2.5 billion to settle the claims.
But by late December the company’s space unit had a chance to save the year. Boeing had spent the better part of a decade building its Starliner spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. It had not been easy. Long accustomed to cost-plus contracts, Boeing’s space division found itself competing with SpaceX and its more nimble approach to space systems development. With a fixed-price contract, Boeing had to closely watch costs and eat any overruns. Yet, Boeing had persevered, with Starliner sitting atop an Atlas V rocket.
Boeing even had a chance to defeat its much-disliked rival. SpaceX had already completed an uncrewed flight test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft months earlier, and this mission had gone well. But then, during a ground test in April, Crew Dragon exploded. The disaster set SpaceX’s crew program back months. SpaceX founder Elon Musk, too, was distracted that summer by his Starship project. In September, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine publicly chastised Musk, asking him to deliver on Crew Dragon for NASA and the American taxpayer.
In the meantime, Boeing pressed ahead. And in December, if Starliner aced its own uncrewed flight test, Boeing had a chance to win the prize. Another Starliner vehicle, nearly identical to the one on the launch pad in Florida, was in final preparations for its own flight. NASA could probably sign off on a crew flight test within months.
It all lay before Boeing—salvaging an annus horribilis and beating its upstart rival to the prestige of launching the first astronauts into orbit from US soil in nearly a decade. These hopes soared as the Atlas V rocket took off and executed its flight perfectly. They rose further as Starliner made a smooth separation from the rocket, bound for orbit.
And then, of course, time ran out for Boeing.
The Starliner spacecraft was nearly lost shortly after launch. Before separating from the rocket, the spacecraft captured the wrong “mission elapsed time” from its Atlas V launch vehicle—it was supposed to pick up this time during the terminal phase of the countdown, but instead it grabbed data 11 hours off of the correct time. This caused the spacecraft to errantly fire its thrusters and burn too much fuel to reach a proper orbit. Plans for an essential space station docking were canceled.
Then, just before the vehicle was due to perform a de-orbit burn and return to Earth, engineers discovered a mapping error in the software for a set of thrusters on Starliner’s service module. Had this not been caught, the service module would not have performed a proper disposal burn after separating from the crew capsule. Instead, Starliner’s thrusters would have fired such that the service module and crew capsule could have collided. This was corrected, and Starliner made it home safely after its aborted flight.
The aftermath was disastrous for Boeing. NASA declared the mission a “high visibility close call,” launching an investigation into Boeing’s safety culture and demanding a major revamping of Boeing’s flight software. Boeing also agreed to pay for a second test flight, at a cost of $410 million, out of its own resources.
For the Starliner team, this was a demoralizing time. They had failed. They responded admirably by putting their pens to paper and digging into Starliner’s more than 1 million lines of code to look for errors. Then, they tested it much more thoroughly than before.
Capture the flag
This was hard and humbling work, perhaps no more so than for Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who joined Boeing in 2011. Ferguson moved to a senior position at Boeing only months after commanding the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, during the summer of that year to great public acclaim. Before the final shuttle flight Ferguson helped orchestrate the hand over of an American flag to the space station, saying that the first crew to return on a US vehicle—likely developed by Boeing or SpaceX—would claim the flag.
Ferguson set up this game of capture the flag knowing he was moving to Boeing, with the intention of leading the first Starliner mission alongside a couple of NASA astronauts. He was planning to go back and get that flag.
He hung with Boeing throughout the 2010s, serving as the public figure for Starliner, explaining its delays. Finally, after the first aborted Starliner mission, Ferguson had to step aside. For too long his family had planned events around his potential flight date. But it kept slipping. In October 2020, Ferguson said he would not fly on Starliner for “family issues.” He was not going to miss those important family events, such as weddings.
Ferguson also stepped aside shortly after another NASA astronaut captured the flag. Whereas Ferguson led the Boeing team, his pilot on that final space shuttle flight, Doug Hurley, had remained at NASA. He was assigned to command the first Crew Dragon mission to the space station. Hurley brought home the flag.
Though he is no longer flying on Starliner, Ferguson remains the public face of the Boeing mission. And like his colleagues, Ferguson has dug into the work over the last 20 months. “We have scrutinized every aspect of Starliner’s flight software,” Ferguson said during a recent pre-flight briefing. “We have done mission end-to-end verification tests. We have added an enormous amount of test scripting to the way that we manage our flight software. We have made upgrades to our communications system.”
And so finally, the Starliner team has a chance for redemption.
If all goes well, the mission will launch at 1:20 pm ET (17:20 UTC) from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Atlas V rocket awaits. Weather conditions are iffy, however, with about a 50 percent chance of go conditions. If the mission launches on schedule, that critical docking with the space station is scheduled for 1:37 pm Wednesday, about 24 hours after launch.
Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann