May 03 2024

Boeing Starliner Launches Soon

If all goes well, Boeing’s Starliner capsule will launch on Monday May 6th with two crew members aboard, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, who will be spending a week aboard the ISS. This is the last (hopefully) test of the new capsule, and if successful it will become officially in service. This will give NASA two commercial capsules, including the SpaceX Dragon capsule, on which it can purchase seats for its astronauts.

If successful this will fulfill NASAs Commercial Crew Program (CCP) – it decided, rather than building its own next generation space capsule, it would contract with commercial companies. After an initial evaluation phase it chose two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to get the contracts. Initially the two projects were neck and neck, but to its credit SpaceX was able to complete development first, with its Dragon 2 capsule going into service in 2020. Boeing now hopes to be the second commercial company to have a NASA approved crewed capsule.

There is obviously a lot riding on this final test flight on Monday, given the recent difficulties that Boeing has had. Its hard-earned reputation for aerospace excellence has been significantly tarnished by recent failures of its jetliners which seem to have been due to systemic problems with quality control within Boeing, and a corporate culture that no longer seems dedicated to quality and safety first. Let’s hope the space capsule division does not have the same issues.

This is also an important day for NASA. They took a bit of a gamble by deciding not to develop and own their own capsule but to change strategies and partner with commercial companies. I could argue the program is already successful with the Dragon capsule, but the program itself would only be a partial success without the Starliner. Part of the strategy was to have two completely independent US-based methods for getting astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. If a problem occurs in one capsule, the other would be there as a backup.

This makes extreme sense as we attempt to transition to the next phase of human spaceflight – a self-sustaining commercial, public, and private presence in space. NASA was stung by the fact that when it retired the space shuttle the US no longer had any means of getting astronauts to and from space. NASA had to purchase rides on aging Soyuz capsules – a bit of an embarrassment in itself, made worse each time tensions rose between the US and Russia. NASA infrastructure was geared toward the space shuttle program. Even in a best-case scenario, it would take years to transition to another system, leaving a gap in our access to space. This is exactly what happened, and NASA realized they can’t have all their eggs in one basket.

Having two commercial partners  is a great hedge against ever losing our access to space again. I hope, though, that their lesson is not soon forgotten. Space systems take years to develop and test and are prone to delays. Preserving constant access to space means having multiple overlapping programs. This could mean that they should start plans for the next generation capsule soon. Also, having a third company with their own capsule seems like reasonable redundancy and competition.

The plan, as far as I can tell, is for this to happen organically. The existence of two private companies with space capsules, in addition to all the private rocket systems, not only gives NASA multiple options for getting its own astronauts into space (as well as the ESA), but it allows other private companies, like Axiom, to pay for seats into space. NASA therefore sees this as a key component to kickstarting a robust commercial space industry. This will allow more companies like Axiom, for example, to build, own, and operate private space stations. That, in turn, will create more demand for commercial access to space, which will then make it more feasible to have still more companies building space stations.

Meanwhile big government agencies like NASA and the ESA will act as “anchor” customers – somewhat guaranteed large customers to help maintain stability for aerospace companies.

As always, we will have to wait and see how this all works out, but it seems to be going great so far. We are entering a new space age, leveraging the best of both worlds – government funding and private competition. Private industry could not have done this without the “anchor” and seed funding of NASA. And private companies are, frankly, doing a much better job of achieving competitive reliable access to space. Compare what SpaceX is doing with the Space Launch System. I am all in favor of the Artemis program and getting back to the moon with a more permanent presence, but these one-off Artemis launches as expensive, not sustainable, and the mission parameters seem overly complex. Hopefully Artemis will be that last such giant non-reusable NASA launch system as we transition more fully to the more cooperative model with private industry.

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