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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft under extra scrutiny in wake of 737 Max crashes

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Boeing's Starliner spacecraft under extra scrutiny in wake of 737 Max crashes

MELBOURNE, Florida – After the Boeing 737 Max fiasco and the 346 deaths that resulted, the company's Starliner crew capsules under extra scrutiny.

The spacecraft failed to reach the International Space Station during a crucial test flight in December. The company said a software failure caused some of Starliner's engines to fire at the wrong time.

Software problems were behind the crashes of two 737 Max aircraft as well. The plane has been grounded since March, while Boeing is working to correct the problems.

Last week, an independent government analysis found that Starliner suffered from additional software problems that could have resulted in a catastrophic failure of the spacecraft if it had not been detected.

"We don't know how many software errors we have. We don't know if we only have two or we have many hundreds," said Doug Loverro, NASA's head of human space flight.

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NASA is now conducting a full organizational security assessment for Boeing. Loverro said the decision to analyze Boeing's safety culture was based on "press reports we saw from other parts of Boeing", software problems and failed orbital flight testing.

"It looks like there are possibly process issues at Boeing, so we want to understand what the Boeing culture is that may have led to this," said Loverro.

NASA is still deciding whether to require Boeing to retake the orbital flight test, but could make a decision by the end of February.

Regardless, the problems probably cost Boeing the first to return US astronauts to space from American soil, allowing competitor SpaceX to stand out.

It is not yet clear what the impact of this second-place status on Boeing is, but it is indisputable that the aerospace giant is going through a difficult time.

Rivals:SpaceX and Boeing compete to launch astronauts at the International Space Station

Some underestimate the comparison between Starliner and 737 Max, pointing out that they come from separate divisions of the company, with different workforces and daily management structures.

"I don't see the 737 Max's problems with Boeing in any way related to the Starliner. Within companies as big as Boeing, these are really just completely different companies," said Dylan Taylor, investor and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings.

Others say that a company's corporate culture tends to be dictated by the CEO and permeates all divisions of the company.

"Culture can change performance," said Chet Wade, a specialist in crisis communication and corporate culture. "So you see it at Boeing. You see reports about their culture and what was going on, and maybe it was because they just wanted to win. How winning is what they want to do, to start cutting costs, they started making assumptions that maybe they were a little optimistic, not lies, not deceived, but just making mistakes and judgments, and that starts to feed their culture and, finally, the people who would have made decisions differently start to follow the culture. "

E-mails from recently released employees show that executives covered 737 Max security issues to outsmart Federal Aviation Administration regulators. An official even commented that he would not like his family to fly on the plane.

In January, the company replaced CEO Dennis Muilenburg with David Calhoun. The move was seen as an effort to restore public confidence in the company.

"I know we have things to work on and changes to be made," Calhoun said in a statement to investors on Jan. 29.

"I value my relationship across the industry with customers and regulators and others. And when they tell me something, I believe in them. I always fail to believe in them. And therefore, the work that we have to do internally to restore all these confidences , and yes, change our culture, you can bet, I'm working on it ".

Boeing employs more than 150,000 people, and while the space and commercial aviation divisions are separate parts of the company, employees often move from one division to another.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks during a pre-launch briefing for the Boeing Starliner at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, December 19, 2019. Astronauts Josh Cassada, Suni Williams, Nicole Mann, Chris Ferguson and Mike Fincke are after him.

It is not surprising that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine wants to emphasize the distance between Boeing's aviation and space divisions.

"I think in this particular case, it's really a comparison between apples and oranges. What we're doing here when we fly into space is very different than what a commercial plane does day after day," Bridenstine told a news conference before the Starliner orbital flight test in December.

But the general public may not make that distinction.

"From the outside world, people don't see it that way; it's Boeing," said Wade. "They all wear the same Boeing logo on their shirts."

In addition to a cultural problem, the company's two divisions are dealing with competition and financial pressure. The aviation division has Airbus on the rise as it expands rapidly in the U.S.

"Look at Airbus' presence in the U.S. and Boeing's competition to reduce operating costs," said John Boyd, director of the Boyd Company, a corporate website selection consultant that Boeing is a client of.

The concern is whether the cost cut translates into security cuts. In the case of the 737 Max, it is clear that Boeing's effort to reduce pilot simulation training requirements saved millions of dollars and brought the plane to market earlier.

Boeing's stock continues to decline – down more than 20% from its peak last March – as costs associated with grounding the 737 Max, now estimated at more than $ 18 billion.

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft under extra scrutiny in wake of 737 Max crashes

As for Starliner, the challenge is to manufacture a product with a strict government budget. NASA is paying Boeing a fixed fee to design, build and test the Starliner.

"When you have a two-year delay in a fixed price contract, you have a business problem on your hands because, ultimately, you have a team that supports a program," said Andy Aldrin, director of the Aldrin Space Institute. at Florida Tech. "And in a fixed price contract, if this program lasts much longer, you will need to find something to keep track of costs as the program extends and that is a challenge."

Requiring Boeing to do another unlocked flight test would mean even more money and more delays and therefore more pressure.

Boeing may see the inscription on the wall. On January 29, Boeing announced that it is budgeting $ 410 million in cash for an additional orbital flight test if NASA pulls the trigger.

Whatever NASA decides, Wade believes Boeing needs a victory to restore public confidence in the company.

"I don't think they have room for another mistake," said Wade. "There is so much forgiveness that people have. I think people say that mistakes happen to everyone, but I think they are reaching the critical point where goodwill was used."

Ramon Sanchez, senior operations leader at Starliner, talks to members of the media about the capsule that was recently returned to KSC from its December orbital flight test. Engineers are analyzing the data collected during the test to determine whether another flight test will be needed before the flight of the crew.

Back at the Boeing Starliner facility at Kennedy Space Center, Ramon Sanchez, senior operations leader at Starliner, was in front of the worn-out spacecraft marked by his brief visit to space. Whatever the pressure outside this factory, it is people like Sanchez and his colleagues who live and breathe building the Starliner. They missed a vacation with their loved ones because they know that the astronauts who will fly on the Starliner also have families.

"Humans are going to fly this," he said. “You only have one chance, right? There is no room for error. "

Follow Rachael Joy on Twitter: @Rachael_Joy.

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft under extra scrutiny in wake of 737 Max crashes

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