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While Boeing's passenger planes glitch, NASA is entrusting the company's spaceship with 2 astronauts' lives

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

While Boeing's passenger planes glitch, NASA is entrusting the company's spaceship with 2 astronauts' lives
  • Boeing is about to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time.
  • Boeing's latest airplane malfunctions don't necessarily mean the astronauts are in extra danger.

Defense and aerospace giant Boeing is about to fly astronauts in space for the first time.

NASA's Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams are set to climb aboard Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spaceship on Monday evening, rocket through the skies, and cruise around Earth until the spaceship docks to the International Space Station early Wednesday.

They're scheduled to live on the space station for about a week, then brave a fiery plummet back to Earth with the spaceship deploying parachutes to land in the southwestern US.

This Crew Flight Test mission is over a decade in the making. Starliner is finally catching up to SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which has been working overtime to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS for NASA while Boeing lags behind.

Boeing might be fresh on your mind for another reason, though. Its latest series of passenger-plane woes began in January, when a panel ripped off a Boeing 737 Max 9 jetliner shortly after it took off from Portland. Several people were injured, but luckily nobody was in the seats beside the gaping hole that opened on the plane.

Then Alaska Airlines and United Airlines both reported loose parts on their grounded Boeing planes. The Federal Aviation Administration launched a six-week audit of Boeing and its supplier, Spirit AeroSystems, while the Department of Justice began a criminal investigation.

Does any of that affect the astronauts' safety aboard Starliner?

"This is a clean spaceship and it's ready to launch. And I can tell you from NASA's point of view, we don't launch until it's ready," NASA chief Bill Nelson told reporters on Friday.

NASA clearly trusts the spaceship now, but there have been problems.

On its first attempt to fly to the ISS uncrewed, in 2019, a software error caused the spacecraft to burn through its fuel shortly after launch, forcing an early return to Earth. Dozens of other issues were uncovered during that flight. Then, a problem with valves in the propulsion system delayed its second attempt, which ultimately reached the ISS.

In some aerospace experts' eyes, the airplane issues aren't completely irrelevant.

"I really don't think there's one direct connection," George Nield, former associate administrator of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, told Business Insider.

"It's different people, it's different missions, even different cultures probably within those units," he added. "But at the same time, senior leadership does have a very important role to play in setting the overall safety culture, setting overall priorities, and setting the expectation of the ability to speak out."

In response to a request for comment, a Boeing spokesperson referred BI to four of the company's public Starliner press briefings with NASA. The spokesperson did not specify which comments in the briefings were relevant.

Boeing's safety culture has been a concern to the FAA and NASA

The FAA investigation found dozens of manufacturing problems at both Boeing and its supplier, including inconsistencies in employees' understanding of quality control and procedural problems on the plant floor, The New York Times reported.

An expert review panel also reported "a disconnect between Boeing's senior management and other members of the organization on safety culture," as well as doubt about whether the company's safety-reporting system "ensures open communication and non-retaliation."

Bjorn Fehrm, an aeronautics industry analyst at the Leeham Company, says Boeing's problem is its history of focusing on key performance indicators, or KPIs.

"It changes the criteria for advancement in the company," Fehrm told Business Insider. Rather than being a good engineer, he says, KPIs incentivize being a good politician. They make shareholders happy, but they don't always result in the best product.

The Alaska Airlines plane malfunction is "a symptom of the sickness," Fehrm said. "The sickness is the 25 years of culture which is prioritizing numbers before best knowledge on what to do."

That culture was also behind two deadly crashes of 737 Max planes in 2018 and 2019, Fehrm says.

NASA, too, investigated Boeing's company culture after the error-ridden 2019 Starliner test flight. Doug Loverro, a NASA associate administrator overseeing the program at the time, said that the two deadly 737 Max crashes were on his mind when he launched that inquiry.

After those disasters, Boeing hired a new CEO and board members with engineering backgrounds and established an Aerospace Safety Committee.

Those were definitely improvements, Fehrm said, but it doesn't change the middle management that has filtered up by embracing KPIs.

"The desire to get the production rate up to the max is still there, and the old habits of cutting some corners in order to shape numbers are still there," Fehrm said.

"The culture of Boeing is an oil tanker. It's a ship," he added. "You can only turn so fast."

Spaceflight is riskier than aviation

NASA and Boeing have calculated the probability that a catastrophic mishap causes astronauts to die on a Starliner flight — euphemistically, they call this scenario "loss of crew."

NASA's minimum requirement for crew safety was a 1 in 270 chance of loss of crew. Boeing exceeded that with 1 in 295, according to Steve Stich, who manages the NASA Commercial Crew Program that birthed Starliner. He added that those calculations are for a full 210-day mission, while Whilmore's and Williams's test flight lasts just one week.

Of course, odds like that would never fly for commercial airplanes.

Spaceflight is so much more dangerous than aviation in part because it's so much younger. For more than 100 years humans have been building and flying planes, making deadly mistakes, and learning from them.

The US has flown about 400 crewed spaceflights, and four of them have resulted in fatal malfunctions, according to a 2020 analysis. That's a 1% fatal failure rate, which is 10,000 times greater than the rate for commercial airliners.

Spaceflight involves extreme environments and powerful rocket engines. There are simply more hazards the further you go from the ground.

"Even after many years and many hundreds and thousands of flights on an airplane, we still have to have a healthy safety culture. And that same situation applies to space activities, even more so," Nield said.

Starliner has extra safety features

Starliner's flight on Monday is a test, and the spacecraft has already been through a rigorous testing process at NASA's behest.

Boeing has fired the spacecraft's thrusters on the ground, tested its parachutes, and launched it and immediately aborted in order to test the mechanism that would jettison the spacecraft away from a failing rocket. Boeing also completed a series of reviews and corrections to resolve issues it discovered during its two uncrewed flights.

The astronauts have played a very hands-on role.

"We've got our fingerprints on every single procedure that exists for this spacecraft," Wilmore told reporters in a Q&A on Wednesday.

Starliner also has extra safety measures built into its design, Whitmore and Williams said in the Q&A.

For one, it has no "black zones" — parts of the flight trajectory where a certain type of spacecraft failure would be unsurvivable. That's partly thanks to its unique ability to switch between three different flight modes: fully automatic, manual control with computers, and a backup mode that's fully manual with no computers, as a failsafe.

Starliner can also abort its flight anywhere from the launchpad "all the way up through orbit," Williams said.

"We're on the tippity top end, so we'll be ok," she added.

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