Boeing, We Have a Problem: Starliner’s Debut and the Role of Governance in Spaceflight
The Starliner is Boeing’s major contribution to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and is planned to serve as a transport vehicle for NASA astronauts into Low-Earth Orbit and to the International Space Station (ISS). The primary goal of the first uncrewed test was to launch the Starliner and have the craft rendezvous with the ISS.
Problems with the craft’s Mission Elapsed Timer software caused the Starliner to prematurely expend, or “burn”, too much fuel, causing the craft to enter an orbit well-below the ISS and precluding any chance that Starliner would be able to dock with the station. Basically, Boeing shot for the space station and missed.
The software errors were serious enough to the point that the spacecraft itself was threatened and was saved only by quick thinking on the part of the ground control team. Both NASA and Boeing immediately convened a joint independent review team (IRT) to investigate and identify the problems and their causes.
On April 6, 2020, Boeing announced that the Company would conduct a second uncrewed test flight at its own expense in order to test its new pre-flight procedures and ensure that the problems encountered during Starliner’s initial test are corrected.
In the final report presented to NASA and Boeing, the IRT recommended that Boeing address a list of 61 corrective actions to prevent a similar incident in future launches, all of which are related to the three primary software failures that occurred during the mission. The details of the 61 corrective actions have not been made public, however, officials from both NASA and Boeing have confirmed that Boeing engineers failed to conduct thorough end-to-end testing of Starliner’s entire software system prior to the launch.
Jim Chilton, Senior Vice President of Boeing Space and Launch, and John Mulholland, Vice President and Program Manager of the Commercial Crew Program at Boeing, confirmed the lack of end-to-end testing in a teleconference on February 28th, however, they clarified that the engineering team had taken a piecemeal approach to software testing, checking one “chunk” of code at a time.
Mr. Chilton and Mr. Mulholland defended their team’s decision to conduct the tests in that manner, yet they acknowledged that the more time-consuming end-to-end testing could have led the engineers to catch the software errors.
Boeing has since committed publicly to instituting a more rigorous end-to-end software testing procedure before the next Starliner flight. The IRT confirmed that its investigation found no defects with the Starliner’s hardware or mission data.
Like several aerospace companies that have broken into the private spaceflight industry in the past decade, Boeing’s space launch and spaceflight equipment development is currently just one facet of the Company’s operations.
Boeing’s Space and Launch Division is housed within Boeing Defense, Space and Security. As with the Company’s other divisions, the Space and Launch division is subject to oversight by Boeing’s Board of Directors.
According to the Board Expertise analysis, using CGLytics Governance Data and Analytics tools in the software platform, the Company almost completely lacks Technology expertise on its Board. Only recently elected director, Steven M. MollenKopf (elected April 27, 2020), has the professional and industry experience to qualify as a technology expert. This finding is incredibly interesting given the IRT’s focus on Starliner’s software problems.
Starliner’s initial test failure was linked directly to the engineering team’s failure to conduct an end-to-end test of the system’s software, suggesting that a lack of technology expertise among Board members may have contributed to the organizational and procedural flaws highlighted in the publicly-disclosed portions of the IRT’s report.
As illustrated by the diagram above, Boeing’s Board of Directors weakest area of expertise is Technology. By contrast, Boeing’s closest competitors rely heavily on personnel with previous experience in technological development and astronautical engineering in leadership positions.
For example, Bob Smith, the Chief Executive Officer of Jeff Bezos’ private spaceflight company Blue Origin, had a cumulative 26 years of experience working in leadership positions overseeing technological development and astronautical engineering before his appointment as CEO.
SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell, served in a number of leadership roles in the Aerospace Corporation’s Space Systems Engineering and Technology program and as a Director of Microcosm’s Space Systems Division prior to her appointment as SpaceX. Ms. Shotwell is also an inductee of the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in recognition of her contributions for technological development of space launch and satellite equipment. SpaceX recently gained the distinction of becoming the first private-sector company to successfully launch astronauts into orbit on May 30th, 2020.
Some big questions remain.
The most immediate impact of the test failure is that Boeing will fly a second uncrewed test at the Company’s expense.
According to the Company’s 2019 4th quarter results, the Company accrued a “[USD]$410 million pre-tax Commercial Crew charge primarily to provision for an additional uncrewed mission.”  As a result of the charge, the Company’s 4th quarter operating margin decreased to .5 percent.
To prevent similar problems in the future, Boeing must consider restructuring its Space and Launch division to allow for proper governance and oversight.
Boeing already has a valuable resource in former NASA Astronaut, Chris Ferguson, who currently serves as a director of Boeing’s Director of Crew and Mission Operations and is also slated to pilot Starliner’s first crewed flight. Despite his invaluable experience and expertise, Ferguson’s dual role presents a managerial problem for Boeing as Ferguson must both oversee Starliner’s development efforts and train to pilot the spacecraft. This approach may seem intuitive and astronauts have historically played an integral role in spacecraft design, however, this places an undue burden on Mr. Ferguson.
Rigorous oversight of even the most experienced and qualified personnel is a necessary governance practice to ensure that the dangers of spaceflight are mitigated to the fullest extent possible.
Effective June 26th, 2020, Mr. Mullholland has been promoted to the role of Vice President and Program Manager for the International Space Station and will be replaced by Chief Engineer of the International Space Station Program, John Vollmer. Mr. Vollmer has been involved with Boeing’s International Space Station Program since the ISS itself was in its early design stages and has over 30 years of experience the relevant fields. Mr. Vollmer’s technological expertise will allow for an additional layer of oversight for a program that depends on rapidly evolving technology and software.
As pressure mounts to keep pace with competitors, Boeing will need to continue increasing the number of personnel in leadership positions with experience in technological development, even among the Board of Directors.
Boeing has committed to incorporating the IRT’s corrective actions into its pre-launch procedures. Mr. Mulholland has confirmed that the engineering team will discontinue its piecemeal strategy in favor of an omnibus testing procedure.
As competing companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origins plan crewed launches for 2020, Starliner’s initial test and subsequent need for further, costly, testing can provide a blueprint for incorporating thorough governance practices into launch and spaceflight procedures.
Considering the extremely dangerous nature of spaceflight, crew safety is paramount to the success of any mission, and as Starliner’s initial test demonstrates, proper governance and accountability can help mitigate the problems that are going to arise during the development, planning, and execution of a spaceflight.
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 Mr. Mulholland was promoted to the position of Vice President and Program Manager for the International Space Station, effective June 26, 2020.