But the real test will come soon enough when the legacy aircraft manufacturer launches an unmanned space capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) in a make-or-break do-over mission. Failure would put a large chunk of the company’s revenue and reputation in jeopardy. The redo launch attempt was initially set for Friday, but NASA and Boeing pushed it back due to an unexpected hiccup at the space station Thursday.
“Currently, launch teams are assessing the next available opportunity,” NASA and Boeing said in a joint statement.
Boeing’s first Starliner flight mission in 2019 was a flop. The autonomous capsule was supposed to fly to the space station carrying cargo for NASA and return to earth in a modern-day act of aviation prowess. However, the capsule’s software sent it on a confusing turn. It never made it to the space station and was called back to Earth for Boeing to make software adjustments, which took over a year.
The fallout from the capsule calamity allowed Elon Musk’s scrappy upstart SpaceX to leave Boeing in the stardust, with three manned missions to the ISS under its belt before Boeing has made even one. Now, Boeing is trying to regain its reputation as an engineering powerhouse. Failing now would do irreparable damage to its reputation.
“It’s your second chance, so the expectation is that you will do better. If you don’t, then the big question becomes why,” said Ronald Epstein, aerospace analyst for Bank of America. “That would be a big public blow to their engineering rank.”
Boeing officials are well aware of the stakes. “It is paramount importance that we have a successful flight,” John Vollmer, a Boeing vice president who oversees the program, told reporters last week after NASA cleared the company to fly.
For decades following the Cold War, Boeing was known for its engineering excellence with its mastery showing up in innovative bombers and other military planes. Somewhere a shift happened, and those years of technical know-how fell under question after two fatal 737 crashes in 2019. Then a software problem on Starliner put an onboard clock off by 11 hours, leading the computer to think it was at an entirely different point in the mission, which caused the spacecraft to fire its engines incorrectly and waste fuel.
What followed was a firestorm of business issues, including a NASA probe into the failed attempt. NASA gets some of the blame too. The space agency took a more hands-off approach when examining Boeing leading up to the launch. Meanwhile, NASA undertook a full safety review of SpaceX, sparked after the company’s chief executive was seen smoking marijuana during an interview streamed on the Internet.
Nevertheless, the Starliner screw-up put NASA’s relationship with Boeing to the test. One software problem was found and fixed midflight. Another, potentially more hazardous glitch was discovered once the capsule landed in the New Mexico desert. NASA and Boeing undertook a joint investigation to figure out why the mistakes happened. It contributed to the firing of its CEO, Dennis Muilenberg, and after the flawed flight, the company also replaced its Starliner program manager with a new executive.
Eighty software tweaks later, NASA said Boeing could try again. But this time it’s on Boeing’s dime.
During Starliner’s first flight, ground controllers had a hard time communicating with the capsule after it veered between communications satellites.
"We found that the communications (were) not as robust as we would have desired on our first flight. So we spent some effort, modifying that code,” said Vollmer in a news conference Tuesday. “There were numerous other changes made to flight software.”
Those changes included tweaks to cancel out interfering frequencies from cellphones on Earth and ways to point the capsule away from potentially noisy interference, according to Boeing commercial astronaut Chris Ferguson.
Boeing’s woes have been further exacerbated by the success of SpaceX, the other company under contract with NASA to develop spacecraft to fly astronauts to the space station. When the contracts were awarded in 2014, most everyone in the aerospace industry expected Boeing to fly crews first. But SpaceX won that race last year, when it successfully flew two NASA astronauts in a test flight to the station. Since then, it has flown two more missions, each with four astronauts, earning it a spot as one of NASA’s most trusted partners.
Fixing Starliner hasn’t been cheap.
Boeing initially built its seven-passenger capsule under a $4.5 billion NASA commercial crew contract. The software adjustments made over the past 18 months cost the company at least $410 million, according to Boeing’s earnings report.
While that’s a just a drop in the bucket for a firm valued at $135 billion, another hiccup might cause NASA and others to reconsider doing business with the company in the future.
Boeing hired a former SpaceX engineer, Jinnah Hosein, to get its software up to snuff “across the enterprise.” Vollmer said Hosein offered input on software changes and attended monthly software reviews leading up to the second launch. One “big difference,” Vollmer said, from before was that Boeing keenly focused on integrating software and hardware throughout the redevelopment process, “not just software as a discipline alone.”
Another round of similar software issues might run Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars, while a more disastrous fall from space would take Boeing back to square one. And a crisis situation of that magnitude could reverberate through the rest of its noncommercial division, representing 40 percent of Boeing’s revenue from April through June, or roughly $6.8 billion of $16.9 billion the company took in.
“From a financial perspective, they’d survive another near miss. But reputationally, it’s already been one bad story after the other — well over and beyond what you’d typically expect from a normal aerospace and defense company,” said Burkett Huey, an analyst for the research firm Morningstar.
Analysts also suggest that a second round of issues would raise questions about Boeing’s hiring, internal engineering culture and priorities.
“Commercial aviation and defense require a level of engineering that’s pretty serious. If you’re having a shortage in your engineering ranks, that has broader implications beyond one little space program,” Epstein said.
There’s always a chance for liftoff to be rescheduled. Boeing initially set up an instantaneous launch window for Friday, meaning there wasn’t much wiggle room. The space agency previously set Aug. 3 and 4 and back up launch dates, but it’s unclear whether liftoff will happen then either.
Unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms are common this time of year at NASA’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, where Starliner is poised to eventually launch.
On Thursday morning, Boeing said there’s a 50 percent chance that weather would cause it to change the launch date. The weather has already slowed down the prelaunch process. Crews were set to move the capsule atop its rocket from the hangar to a launch site on Wednesday, but the transition was delayed due to an Internet outage and inclement weather.
“Storms roll in, so Starliner didn’t roll out,” Boeing tweeted Wednesday evening.
The rollout of the Starliner spacecraft and Atlas V did happen early Thursday. But not long after, there was an unexpected problem on the ISS that sent the orbiting outpost 45-degrees outside its typical orientation, according to ISS Mission Control in Houston.
The station’s sudden movement was caused after thrusters on Russia’s Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module inadvertently fired off. Officials haven’t figured out why that happened, but the station is “back in normal attitude and orientation,” according to ISS. Still, the incident led officials to postpone the launch.
When it does launch, Starliner is supposed to transport about 475 pounds of cargo to the station someday soon, and the voyage should take about 24 hours. NASA says the capsule will remain docked for five to 10 days, and will return with about 575 pounds of cargo.
Boeing has said it hopes to proceed with a crewed flight later this year.