Author Topic: Boeing Starliner  (Read 1043 times)

Offline Jeff Raven

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Boeing Starliner
« on: August 15, 2021, 11:02:01 AM »
Is it time to (finally) consider pulling the plug on this project? It's not just years behind schedule and over budget, but now it's back to the shop for more repairs. I am not an engineer, and therefore my reaction is gut based rather than informed, and I welcome any corrections on that.  That said, the fact that Boeing admits that some of the moisture which led to the issue with the valves could have simply been due to the humid Florida weather, and that this wasn't already accounted for, seems, well, pathetic.  I'm sure this is oversimplified, but to not account for the fact that Florida has humid weather would be like building something in McMurdo Station but not insulating it against cold.  If this is actually what happened, that they messed up something so basic, how can NASA (or anyone) be confident that they got the more complicated things right?

Offline jfb

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2021, 11:38:48 PM »
Pulling the plug on Starliner means SpaceX is the sole US ride to the ISS until it is decommissioned. Which may wind up being the case anyway if Boeing takes another couple of years to fix this issue. The next earliest opportunity is November, but I suspect they won’t make that.  God knows what other nasties are still lurking. Note that Boeing doesn’t get paid until they meet this milestone - they’re paying for this second test out of their own pocket.  If this test fails, I’m not sure they wouldn’t pull the plug themselves. 

I will say this feels like a more "normal" issue with new vehicle development than pulling the wrong value for MET from the booster and screwing up your thruster programming.  But it ain’t awesome. Thank God they caught it on the ground. 

I’m just hoping this was a process issue, not a design or manufacturing issue. 

Offline cjameshuff

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #2 on: August 16, 2021, 10:04:01 AM »
As far as NASA is concerned, Starliner is still closer to being a working second spacecraft than any other option. And on Boeing's part, giving up now will not save them money or win them future contracts.

Offline jfb

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #3 on: August 16, 2021, 11:23:56 AM »
Yeah, ditching Starliner and going with something like Dreamchaser just pushes everything back several more years, and there aren't that many years left in the ISS.  Boeing will likely make it there by 2022, SNC wouldn't get there before 2024, and that's if they can figure out how to launch a manned variant that doesn't require riding in a fairing. 

Again, this delay and the reason for it is bad, but it's not stupid like the software errors in OFT-1.  I feel like they can get this worked out, if not by November, then by early 2022. 

But they had better go over that thing with a fine-toothed comb before stacking it again.  If nothing else purge those lines properly. 

Offline JayUtah

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #4 on: August 18, 2021, 10:03:14 AM »
In this particular race there are actually lots of points for second place.  However, after the dismal failure of OFT-1, OFT-2 was seen by many as a highly crucial mission in terms of Boeing's credibility.  This might be a nail in the coffin of the old funding model.  The ship will fly, but it's definitely going to change how NASA and Boeing do business moving forward.

I think I said it before, but Boeing isn't the same company I started doing business with back in the 1990s, and not even in the same ballpark as the company that it was back in the 1960s.  They've largely given up on what made them successful in the past.  My brother-in-law just started there as a software engineer, but he's in the commercial airframe side of the business.  We'll see what he reports about ongoing company culture.
"Facts are stubborn things." --John Adams

Offline Peter B

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #5 on: August 18, 2021, 10:28:48 AM »
In this particular race there are actually lots of points for second place.  However, after the dismal failure of OFT-1, OFT-2 was seen by many as a highly crucial mission in terms of Boeing's credibility.  This might be a nail in the coffin of the old funding model.  The ship will fly, but it's definitely going to change how NASA and Boeing do business moving forward.

I think I said it before, but Boeing isn't the same company I started doing business with back in the 1990s, and not even in the same ballpark as the company that it was back in the 1960s.  They've largely given up on what made them successful in the past.  My brother-in-law just started there as a software engineer, but he's in the commercial airframe side of the business.  We'll see what he reports about ongoing company culture.

Can you elaborate on what has changed? Is it unique to Boeing or are these changes happening in other aerospace/defence companies? And do these changes affect the ability of Boeing (and potentially the other companies) to provide good products to the US military?

Offline jfb

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #6 on: August 18, 2021, 03:17:34 PM »
In this particular race there are actually lots of points for second place.  However, after the dismal failure of OFT-1, OFT-2 was seen by many as a highly crucial mission in terms of Boeing's credibility.  This might be a nail in the coffin of the old funding model.  The ship will fly, but it's definitely going to change how NASA and Boeing do business moving forward.

I think I said it before, but Boeing isn't the same company I started doing business with back in the 1990s, and not even in the same ballpark as the company that it was back in the 1960s.  They've largely given up on what made them successful in the past.  My brother-in-law just started there as a software engineer, but he's in the commercial airframe side of the business.  We'll see what he reports about ongoing company culture.

Can you elaborate on what has changed? Is it unique to Boeing or are these changes happening in other aerospace/defence companies? And do these changes affect the ability of Boeing (and potentially the other companies) to provide good products to the US military?

This article explains it pretty well.

Short version - Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, which was a failing company for all the same reasons Boeing is struggling right now, and somehow the MD executives wound up in charge. 

Offline Peter B

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #7 on: August 18, 2021, 08:06:59 PM »
In this particular race there are actually lots of points for second place.  However, after the dismal failure of OFT-1, OFT-2 was seen by many as a highly crucial mission in terms of Boeing's credibility.  This might be a nail in the coffin of the old funding model.  The ship will fly, but it's definitely going to change how NASA and Boeing do business moving forward.

I think I said it before, but Boeing isn't the same company I started doing business with back in the 1990s, and not even in the same ballpark as the company that it was back in the 1960s.  They've largely given up on what made them successful in the past.  My brother-in-law just started there as a software engineer, but he's in the commercial airframe side of the business.  We'll see what he reports about ongoing company culture.

Can you elaborate on what has changed? Is it unique to Boeing or are these changes happening in other aerospace/defence companies? And do these changes affect the ability of Boeing (and potentially the other companies) to provide good products to the US military?

This article explains it pretty well.

Short version - Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, which was a failing company for all the same reasons Boeing is struggling right now, and somehow the MD executives wound up in charge.

Wow, what an interesting article. Clearly shows how Starliner and the 737-Max belong in the same basket.

Offline Glom

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #8 on: August 20, 2021, 11:27:36 AM »
I was given a paper to read from Boeing on some outfitting they did to one of their derivatives. Kind of reads like a high school report what with the language. Things like, "engineers were mesmerised by the video."

Definitely not something you'd see in a major engineering publication.

Offline JayUtah

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #9 on: August 28, 2021, 12:36:27 PM »
This article explains it pretty well.

Short version - Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, which was a failing company for all the same reasons Boeing is struggling right now, and somehow the MD executives wound up in charge.

Yeah, that article pretty much sums it up.  All I have to add just extends the points made there, and adds some color.  The phrase, "McDonnell Douglas bought Boeing with Boeing's own money," has been in circulation in the aerospace community for years.

The philosophy of doing it cheaply rather than doing it right was McD's downfall, and will almost certainly be Boeing's.  But I think the "color" I would add is that Boeing has fallen even more deeply in to the chasm of short-term shareholder and executive profits over good business.  That's what every major American company seems to have done in the past 20 years.  They seem to have become piggy-banks for the wealthy elite, who are just pillaging their assets and reputations for short-term profits.

And yes, this has begun to affect government contracts.  Ironically that's why Boeing has been such an attractive target for pillaging.  The near-bottomless revenue stream of government contracting makes dollar-signs ring up in the eyes of potential executives and investors.  They seem to believe that Boeing can do no wrong, and that all manner of managerial misconduct or short-sightedness will be tolerated.

Aerospace requires strategic planning at least into the next decade, because that's how long development schedules have typically extended.  None of that seems to be happening now.  The focus seems to be on extending existing product lines for as long as possible with minimal investment.  I fear the Dreamliner (which I was privileged to work on) will be the last new commercial airframe they develop.  And I fear the Starliner will continue to stumble until Boeing finally loses NASA's confidence.
"Facts are stubborn things." --John Adams

Offline JayUtah

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #10 on: August 28, 2021, 01:03:07 PM »
I was given a paper to read from Boeing on some outfitting they did to one of their derivatives. Kind of reads like a high school report what with the language. Things like, "engineers were mesmerised by the video."

Definitely not something you'd see in a major engineering publication.

No, but the industry is changing.  20 years ago we paid no attention to public relations.  We knew who our customers were, and they knew who we were.  We all spoke the same (very nerdy) language, and there was never any reason to reach out to the public or to cultivate some image outside the industry communities.  No one's business success depended on that, so it was an extraneous expenditure.

Then along came Elon Musk, who put a face on space and made it cool again.  Everyone else is playing catch-up.  You see Tory Bruno now trying to put a face on United Launch Alliance.  You see the other Space Billionaires trying to grab spotlights.  Boeing doesn't have anyone to sing in that chorus line.  Neither does Northrop Grumman, the other major firm I work with.  (And all our best guys came from Lockheed.)  But by the same token, it seems like they're trying to jump on the bandwagon of "Space is cool again!" and do things that the general public might approve of, but they aren't sure how.  Honestly to me it comes off like my grandpa trying to ride a skateboard.  You are Boeing.  Be Boeing.  Or rather, go back to what being Boeing used to mean, if you're going to reinvent yourself.

SpaceX -- and to a lesser extent, other newer companies -- are eating everyone's lunches not just because they are new and innovative and arguably good, but because they are good at telling everyone how good they are.  The aerospace establishment probably can't re-invent themselves in the SpaceX mold, not just because grandpas look ridiculous riding skateboards, but because they've never been good at riding skateboards.  The type of fast-paced, far-reaching, sexy innovation that SpaceX can do (by virtue of private billions) is just not something Boeing can realistically do now.  They are the tortoise to Musk's hare, if this post will bear another metaphor.
"Facts are stubborn things." --John Adams

Offline jfb

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #11 on: August 31, 2021, 04:42:16 PM »
An anecdote on what it was like to work with Boeing's defense side a little over a decade ago.  At the time I convinced myself that the problems I saw were the result of this project being kind of a prototype/proof of concept thingy, but after the last few years I think I was seeing the overall rot. 

We were subcontracting for Boeing on a situational awareness/common operational picture system.  The concept was that you had services running on various platforms reporting status and combat readiness, objects in the battlespace obtained from human and sensor observations, and a few other things - these services were written by the various subcontractors.  I was responsible for the service that received battlespace object reports (HUMINT and sensor).  These services would send updates to a separate GUI service running on its own platform, which would integrate and present this data for a warfighter to monitor and validate before being forwarded on to the COP at HQ - this GUI service was written by the Boeing team.

Except, here's the problem - the GUI service didn't actually integrate or manage any data.  Instead, they exposed hooks to all the graphics primitives (tables, maps, etc.) and relied on the back-end services to perform the actual screen management - the back-end services were responsible for managing the screen state. 

I didn't just forward BSO reports to the GUI service - I actually sent the commands to add or remove rows from the table that displayed those reports on the GUI - over a network with a quarter-second latency.  And the API Boeing provided only allowed me to add or remove one row at a time, which proved to be a major issue during usability testing.  Same thing was true for all the other services.  The positioning service that was responsible for updating the map had to send commands to draw the actual graphics primitives on the map itself. 

The GUI team (Boeing) successfully deferred all the hard work onto the backend services.  And the GUI service still didn't quite work right. 

Now, this design had two big problems.  The biggest problem was that it could not meet functional requirements.  Anytime the warfighter selected an object on the map, all the relevant tables were supposed to automatically update to show status, combat readiness, etc., for that specific object.  This design specifically prevented that from happening - the backend services didn't communicate with each other, and since the GUI didn't actually keep track of anything it was displaying, it couldn't send the corresponding command to the back-end services to update their information either.

The second problem was performance - all the backend services were doing screen management over a network, which was already slow.  Add to this that the APIs were exceedingly primitive.  Like I said, I could only add or remove one row at a time from the table I was responsible for, and with network latency each command took about a quarter second to execute.  Not a problem when you're monitoring 5 or 10 objects, deadly when you're managing a couple hundred (it took on the order of 5 minutes to update the table if you were managing hundreds of reports).  Under realistic scenarios the whole thing just fell down hard.  We suggested to the Boeing team that they add calls to perform bulk updates (or at least a call to delete all the rows in the table), but those suggestions were dismissed as being "too hard". 

The API code that we called was generated from a spreadsheet that was chock full of spelling errors - I had at least one build break a day because I insisted on spelling it "activity" instead of "avtivity". 

How this got past review and approved (especially since it couldn't satisfy some key functional requirements) is a mystery to me, meaning it was never really reviewed.  Someone at Boeing should have kicked that design back with "are you f___ing kidding me" stamped on every page in red ink, but didn't. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to point out that my code was hot garbage.  It was my first adventure in multithreading and I botched it badly enough that I put the schedule at risk all by myself.  But ... I wouldn't have had to do that if I didn't have to do two completely separate jobs in the first place.  My service shouldn't have cared about what rows were actually visible on the screen, it shouldn't have cared about the state of a dropdown menu, it shouldn't have cared about anything but maintaining a connection and sending updates. 

At the time I told myself it was because this wasn't something in a critical path so they weren't putting their best team on it, but it was part of a larger modernization program and proved to be an accurate representation of the overall effort.  The Army finally got a clue and cancelled the whole thing.  And while it ultimately cost me my job, as a taxpayer I was thrilled. 

Offline Glom

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #12 on: September 01, 2021, 03:20:15 AM »
I was given a paper to read from Boeing on some outfitting they did to one of their derivatives. Kind of reads like a high school report what with the language. Things like, "engineers were mesmerised by the video."

Definitely not something you'd see in a major engineering publication.

No, but the industry is changing.  20 years ago we paid no attention to public relations.  We knew who our customers were, and they knew who we were.  We all spoke the same (very nerdy) language, and there was never any reason to reach out to the public or to cultivate some image outside the industry communities.  No one's business success depended on that, so it was an extraneous expenditure.

Then along came Elon Musk, who put a face on space and made it cool again.  Everyone else is playing catch-up.  You see Tory Bruno now trying to put a face on United Launch Alliance.  You see the other Space Billionaires trying to grab spotlights.  Boeing doesn't have anyone to sing in that chorus line.  Neither does Northrop Grumman, the other major firm I work with.  (And all our best guys came from Lockheed.)  But by the same token, it seems like they're trying to jump on the bandwagon of "Space is cool again!" and do things that the general public might approve of, but they aren't sure how.  Honestly to me it comes off like my grandpa trying to ride a skateboard.  You are Boeing.  Be Boeing.  Or rather, go back to what being Boeing used to mean, if you're going to reinvent yourself.

SpaceX -- and to a lesser extent, other newer companies -- are eating everyone's lunches not just because they are new and innovative and arguably good, but because they are good at telling everyone how good they are.  The aerospace establishment probably can't re-invent themselves in the SpaceX mold, not just because grandpas look ridiculous riding skateboards, but because they've never been good at riding skateboards.  The type of fast-paced, far-reaching, sexy innovation that SpaceX can do (by virtue of private billions) is just not something Boeing can realistically do now.  They are the tortoise to Musk's hare, if this post will bear another metaphor.

A curious metaphor since the tortoise won in the end.

Offline JayUtah

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #13 on: September 02, 2021, 06:04:34 PM »
Except, here's the problem - the GUI service didn't actually integrate or manage any data.  Instead, they exposed hooks to all the graphics primitives (tables, maps, etc.) and relied on the back-end services to perform the actual screen management - the back-end services were responsible for managing the screen state.

I showed this to my software engineering department head.  He facepalmed.

Quote
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to point out that my code was hot garbage.  It was my first adventure in multithreading and I botched it badly enough that I put the schedule at risk all by myself.  But ... I wouldn't have had to do that if I didn't have to do two completely separate jobs in the first place.

Indeed.  The fact that you had the typical problems with multithreading doesn't seem to have much to do with an API that doesn't allow for distributed back-end functionality.  But your example rings true with everything I've experienced with Boeing and software.
"Facts are stubborn things." --John Adams

Offline JayUtah

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Re: Boeing Starliner
« Reply #14 on: September 02, 2021, 06:06:33 PM »
A curious metaphor since the tortoise won in the end.

Only because the hare eventually screwed up.  But yeah, I should have left out that last part.
"Facts are stubborn things." --John Adams