MELBOURNE, Fla. – In the wake of Boeing’s 737 Max fiasco and resulting 346 deaths, the company’s Starliner crew capsule is coming under extra scrutiny.
The spacecraft failed to reach the International Space Station during a pivotal test flight in December. The company said a software glitch caused some of Starliner’s thrusters to fire at the wrong time.
Software issues were behind the crashes of two 737 Max aircraft as well. The plane has been grounded since March while Boeing works to correct the problems.
Last week, an independent government review found that Starliner suffered from additional software issues that could have resulted in a catastrophic failure of the spacecraft had they not been detected.
“We don’t know how many software errors we’ve got. We don’t know if we have just two or we have many hundred,” said Doug Loverro, NASA’s head of human spaceflight.
NASA is now conducting a full organizational safety assessment of Boeing. Loverro said the decision to look into Boeing’s safety culture was based on “press reports that we’ve seen from other parts of Boeing,” the software issues and the failed orbital flight test.
“It looks as if there are, could possibly be, process issues at Boeing so we want to understand what the culture is at Boeing that may have led to that,” Loverro said.
NASA is still deciding whether it will require Boeing to re-do the orbital flight test but may make a decision by the end of February.
Regardless, the problems likely have cost Boeing a spot at being the first to return U.S. astronauts to space from American soil, allowing competitor SpaceX to pull ahead.
It remains unclear what impact that second-place status would ultimately have on Boeing, but it’s indisputable that the aerospace giant is having a tough time.
Some downplay the comparison of Starliner and 737 Max, pointing out they come from separate divisions of the company, with distinct workforces and day-to-day management structures.
“I don’t see the 737 Max issues with Boeing in any way linked to Starliner. Within companies as big as Boeing those are really just completely different companies,” said Dylan Taylor, investor and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings.
Others say a company’s corporate culture tends to be dictated by the CEO and permeates throughout all of the company’s divisions.
“Culture can change performance,” said Chet Wade, crisis communication and corporate culture expert. “So you see this at Boeing. You see reports about their culture and what was going on and maybe it was because they just wanted to win. Because winning is what they want to do so they start to cut corners, they started to make assumptions that maybe were a little optimistic, not lies, not deception but just making errors and judgment and that starts to feed into your culture and ultimately, people who would have made decisions differently start to go along with the culture.”
Recently released employee emails show executives covered up 737 Max safety problems to deceive Federal Aviation Administration regulators. One employee even commented they wouldn’t want their 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 the public’s trust in the company.
“I know we’ve got things to work on and changes to make,” Calhoun said in an earnings call to investors Jan. 29.
“I treasure my relationship across the industry with customers, and with regulators and others. And when they tell me something, I believe them. I always fault to believing them. And so the work we have to do internally to restore all those confidences, and yes, modify 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 transfer from one division to the other.
Not surprisingly, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine wants to emphasize the distance between Boeing’s aviation and space divisions.
“I do think in this particular case, it’s really an apples to oranges comparison. What we’re doing here when we fly into space is very different than what a commercial airliner does day in and day out,” Bridenstine said at a press 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,” Wade said. “They all wear that same Boeing logo on their shirts.”
In addition to a culture problem, both divisions of the company are dealing with competition and financial pressure. The aviation division has Airbus hot on its tail as it rapidly expands in the U.S.
“Look at what a presence Airbus has become here in the U.S. and a lot of the competition that’s put on Boeing to reduce operating costs,” said John Boyd, principal at the Boyd Company, a corporate site selection consultant of which Boeing is a client.
The concern is whether cost-cutting translates to safety cuts. In the case of the 737 Max, it’s clear Boeing’s push to lower pilot simulation training requirements saved them millions of dollars and got the plane to market sooner.
Boeing stock continues to fall – down more than 20% from its peak last March – as the costs associated with the grounding of the 737 Max rise, now estimated to surpass $18 billion.
As for Starliner, the challenge is manufacturing a product under a strict government budget. NASA is paying Boeing a fixed rate to design, build and test Starliner.
“When you’ve got a two-year delay in a fixed-price contract, you have a business problem on your hands because ultimately you’ve got staff that is supporting a program,” said Andy Aldrin, director of the Aldrin Space Institute at Florida Tech. “And on a fixed-price contract, if that program lasts much longer you have to figure out something to keep control of costs as the program stretches out and that’s a challenge.”
Requiring Boeing to do another uncrewed flight test would mean even more money and more delays and therefore more pressure.
Maybe Boeing sees the writing on the wall. On Jan. 29, Boeing announced it is budgeting $410 million of its own money for an additional orbital flight test in case NASA pulls the trigger.
Whatever NASA decides, Wade believes Boeing needs a win to restore the public’s confidence in the company.
“I don’t think they have room for another mistake,” Wade said. “There’s only so much forgiveness people have. I think people say mistakes happen to everybody but I think they are reaching that critical point where the goodwill has been used up.”
Back at the Boeing Starliner facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Ramon Sanchez, Starliner senior operations lead, stood in front of the scuffed up spacecraft marred by its brief visit to space. Whatever pressure exists outside of this factory, it’s people like Sanchez and his colleagues that live and breathe building Starliner. They’ve missed holidays with their loved ones because they know the astronauts that will fly in Starliner have families, too.
“Humans are gonna fly in this,” he said. “You only get one chance on this right? There’s zero room for error.”
Follow Rachael Joy on Twitter: @Rachael_Joy.