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Trajectory After Failure

The Friday before Christmas I set my alarm for 5am knowing full well Chris would already be awake, watching the live launch coverage of the vehicle he spent so many years working on, Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. I grabbed a cup of coffee and went upstairs to join him, eager at the chance to watch Starliner's maiden voyage to the mother ship, ISS. Clearly, Chris was already a few cups of coffee ahead of me.

Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Together we sat through the countdown, pointing out friends we know in all of the control centers, trying to listen for expected flight loop calls and reminiscing about all of the hard work in play on this critical mission. Supporting this program has meant lots of travel for Chris, new friends showing up and old friends moving away. 

We held hands and watched the coverage, grateful to finally have this moment together - a culmination of so much work and sacrifice. I guess it doesn't get much nerdier than two aerospace engineers cuddled up in the wee morning hours, entranced by the launch of a vehicle one of them built, but that's neither here nor there. The burns progressed, the staging completed and we eagerly awaited Starliner's orbital insertion burn. But, it never came. There was a problem. 

Our hearts sank synchronously. 

Instinctively we tried to troubleshoot in our own 'Mission Control Casa', throwing out theories and basing severity on personnel's body language instead of data. It's torture being an engineer without data! The anomaly pieces started trickling in and eventually the NASA/Boeing press conference confirmed - there would be no attempt at docking to ISS anymore, the vehicle's remaining propellant would be needed for the higher priority demonstration of deorbit, reentry and landing. 

Wow - gut punch. 

As engineers, we are trained to react to data and leave our emotions at the door. But, in light of this mixed-bag mission of successes and failures, and with the year-end-rollover upon us, I find it hard to be completely emotionless.

The people who show up day after day in support of crewed spaceflight are, in one word, dedicated. We all joke that "we aren't here for the money" and especially here in Houston, there are much more lucrative positions for engineers (read: oil and gas). Instead, we are driven by a profound sense of purpose - a desire to continue exploration and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. And whether we work for NASA or Boeing or SpaceX we are all in this together - we are all on the same team. There is no room for an 'us' versus 'them' mentality when you are traveling at 17,500 mph 250 miles above earth within a fragile ecosystem of power generation, controlling computers and environmental machines.

The investigation is still ongoing, but the technical failures onboard Starliner seem to stem from a clock error. How the clock error was introduced or initiated is unclear, but what is clear is how the mission control and engineer teams reacted - swiftly and resourcefully - taking key steps to save critical pieces of the mission demonstration. This is how we are trained - to make time-critical decisions, based on the best data at the time, in order to achieve mission success. This is why there are humans in mission control instead of just software.

It's never easy to write a post about failure, especially when you can physically see the disappointment on your husband's face and feel the tension across the engineering collective in the moments following the second stage separation. BUT failure always presents an opportunity to learn.

Two days later we braced ourselves for Starliner's most critical demonstration: reentry. Again, we were up early - downing coffee and sending all the good vibes we could muster her way. The infrared cameras caught the first glimpse of Calypso post-reentry and when the drogues appeared, followed by 'three good mains' (read: the big parachutes) we all started breathing again. It was a bittersweet touchdown on the chilly sand dunes of White Sands.

Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The flight of Starliner is a great reminder that spaceflight is incredibly challenging. And, as much as software has changed the medium engineers flow designs through - enabling more up-mass due to composite weight savings, smarter thruster firings and flexible redundancy - there is some nostalgia for those simpler days of brute force reliability, at the expense of absolute efficiency. Some may argue its all a numbers game - schedule, budget, savings - but the view from my foxhole is more people driven. I am blown away by the talent and ingenuity that brings together new solutions to old problems, shows up everyday to put in 110%, stays late and arrives early, not afraid to look schedule and budget in the eye in the name of ethics, and in the end, delivers an extremely beautiful and complicated machine back to her home planet, safely.

Enduring through failures is the mark of genuine teamwork. Priceless.

She's home. She's safe. She'll be ready for her next adventure

Comments

  1. My take on it as a civilian is that stuff happens. Yes, I know how expensive it is and how heartbreaking it is. I hope Boeing will stick with the program.

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