NASA trusted 'traditional' Boeing to program its Starliner without close supervision... It failed to dock due to bugs

All eyes were instead on SpaceX and its newer programming techniques


At a press conference on Tuesday, NASA confirmed why Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spaceship failed to hook up with the International Space Station last year. The answer: as expected, buggy code.

Crucially, NASA admitted it did not supervise Boeing closely enough during the craft's software development stage because the agency trusted the aerospace corp's seemingly "more traditional" engineering methods, and thought it had a good grasp on Boeing's processes. NASA thus focused its attention instead on assessing rival SpaceX's newer programming techniques.

Back in December, Boeing was tasked with sending a Starliner packed with cargo to Earth's orbiting science lab. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Boeing to demonstrate it was on track with the spacecraft, which it hopes will safely ferry humans into the heavens in the not-too-distant future. However, the flight was plagued with software glitches, and the Starliner ultimately failed to dock with the station.

CST-100 Starliner (pic: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Boeing round the twist ... the CST-100 Starliner after it returned to Earth, where it remains grounded. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Ground control was able to bring Boeing’s calamity cargo ship back to Earth, and NASA launched a thorough investigation to figure out what went wrong. As a result of that probe, NASA and Boeing boffins have come up with a list of 80 recommendations to fix Starliner's glaring problems, Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said in a conference call with reporters.

A full report detailing these changes will not be publicly released, however, as it contains Boeing's proprietary information that could allegedly provide its competitors an unfair advantage. That's amusing given Boeing is far behind rival SpaceX, and its tech doesn't even work properly. Boeing and SpaceX were both contracted to run deliveries to the space station, and while Elon Musk's upstart has put two astronauts in orbit, Boeing is stuck in the doldrums. A redacted report has not been published yet, either.

Lueders admitted NASA was not as closely involved with the Starliner's software development stage as it could have been, leading to the deployment of poor code. This was partly because the agency thought it already had a solid handle on Boeing's development processes.

“Perhaps we didn’t have as many people embedded in that process as we should have,” she said. Instead, NASA focused on areas it deemed “higher risk,” particularly those involving the safety of the crew.

“The strategy was because we’re buying a service, NASA did not have a requirement to have a systems engineering management plan," she said. "If we had understood what that structure was, we would have been better able to plug into the decision-making process. In particular, how they were integrating software and hardware pieces together. We thought we understood it, but over time we realized it had changed."

Two drogue parachutes successfully deploy from a Boeing Starliner test article during a landing system reliability test conducted on June 21 above White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. Photo credit: NASA/Boeing

Two out of three parachutes... is just as planned for Boeing's Starliner this time around

READ MORE

You might think the Starliner mishap dented Boeing’s standing, yet NASA isn’t giving up on the aerospace company. Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said the American agency expected to launch a new and improved Starliner in the “latter part of the year.”

He couldn’t speculate on the launch date, and said NASA and Boeing eggheads are still making the necessary changes to Boeing’s flight software. “Once we see how that shapes out, we’ll talk about when to go fly,” Stich said.

Boeing’s approach to writing and testing software in its Starliner was described as being “more traditional” than SpaceX’s programming techniques for its crewed Dragon pod. For that reason, NASA staff monitored SpaceX's coders more closely than Boeing's. “When one provider has a newer approach than the other, it's natural for human beings to focus more on that one,” Stich said.

SpaceX successfully sent astronauts off to the space station in its Dragon capsule atop its own Falcon 9 rocket in May. Stich said NASA’s working relationship with both companies was still very solid despite Boeing’s blunders.

“From my perspective, every early space company goes through these anomalies and you learn from it," he said. "These kinds of things disappear. Every time they work to become better... I can’t envision a future where SpaceX is the only provider. We need Boeing and SpaceX to be both be there for us." ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading
  • Big Tech loves talking up privacy – while trying to kill privacy legislation
    Study claims Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft work to derail data rules

    Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft often support privacy in public statements, but behind the scenes they've been working through some common organizations to weaken or kill privacy legislation in US states.

    That's according to a report this week from news non-profit The Markup, which said the corporations hire lobbyists from the same few groups and law firms to defang or drown state privacy bills.

    The report examined 31 states when state legislatures were considering privacy legislation and identified 445 lobbyists and lobbying firms working on behalf of Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, along with industry groups like TechNet and the State Privacy and Security Coalition.

    Continue reading
  • SEC probes Musk for not properly disclosing Twitter stake
    Meanwhile, social network's board rejects resignation of one its directors

    America's financial watchdog is investigating whether Elon Musk adequately disclosed his purchase of Twitter shares last month, just as his bid to take over the social media company hangs in the balance. 

    A letter [PDF] from the SEC addressed to the tech billionaire said he "[did] not appear" to have filed the proper form detailing his 9.2 percent stake in Twitter "required 10 days from the date of acquisition," and asked him to provide more information. Musk's shares made him one of Twitter's largest shareholders. The letter is dated April 4, and was shared this week by the regulator.

    Musk quickly moved to try and buy the whole company outright in a deal initially worth over $44 billion. Musk sold a chunk of his shares in Tesla worth $8.4 billion and bagged another $7.14 billion from investors to help finance the $21 billion he promised to put forward for the deal. The remaining $25.5 billion bill was secured via debt financing by Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Barclays, and others. But the takeover is not going smoothly.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022