The End of an Era

Back in 2019, NASA’s acting chief of human spaceflight operations, Ken Bowersox, wrote concerning Boeing’s Lunar Gateway Logistics resupply bid…

“Since Boeing’s proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.”

What an epic fall from grace for the once mighty Boeing Defense, Space & Security to have the world’s leading space agency, and Boeing’s long-time space partner NASA, publicly snub them this way. This in spite of the political power that Boeing wields in the U.S. Congress. In addition, NASA’s assessment found that the Boeing proposal also lacked in accuracy (ouch!) and that they resisted providing their software source code.

What has happened? Boeing has lead the spaceflight industry since the first space race to the Moon. NASA many long years ago hired them to build the first stage of the highly successful Saturn V rocket that flew men to the Moon in the 60s and early 70s. They also built the rover that the astronauts drove on the Moon to extend their mission footprint.

For 35 years, Boeing built the Inertial Upper Stage for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. It’s purpose was to expand the mission footprint of the low Earth orbiting Space Shuttle by boosting spacecraft launched by the Shuttles to higher orbits and Interplanetary destinations. Boeing was also one of the contractors that participated in building the Space Shuttle and built several other space plane prototypes as well.

They built the Unity (junction), Destiny (lab), and Bishop (airlock) modules for the International Space Station and have served as the primary maintenance contractor for the station ever since.

They built and operated the highly successful Delta series of launchers from the 1960s until now…currently as part of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, .

Boeing was the United States participant in an innovative International launch system called Sea Launch that flew thirty-five payloads to space over a course of fifteen years from a mobile, modified off-shore oil drilling platform.

Today, Boeing remains a prolific manufacturer of NASA and commercial orbiting spacecraft. There might not be a company anywhere in the world with as much space experience as Boeing, a point well made back in 2014 when NASA chose them and SpaceX in their final down-select of contractors for NASA’s Commercial Crew contracts to ferry NASA, Jaxa, and Canadian Space Agency crew to and from the International Space Station.

However, Boeing has fallen from glory. With recent problems in the Space Launch System and Starliner projects, combined with a loss of face in the airliner industry because of the 737 Max, their credibility and reputation for competence have been shoved up against the ropes.

Boeing’s deep cost and schedule overruns in their languishing Space Launch System cost-plus contract with NASA has resulted in dramatic mission shrink for that launcher and put even its short-term survival in doubt. The serious software shortcomings demonstrated in their Starliner Commercial Crew system resulted in pretty much an aborted mission and has relegated NASA to the role of software quality baby-sitter for Boeing. Bear in mind, it wasn’t the problems with the flight that were the issue…the errors that occurred were found to be systemic. With U.S. and Russian relations deteriorating, and Congressional resentment against the Commercial Crew program already, NASA doesn’t have any room for schedule delays caused by companies not following their own internal quality control procedures.

NASA’s new lunar initiative, the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway, effectively wallows in Commercial involvement in what is essentially a first step toward expansion of humanity into the Solar System…continuing the commercialization of space and inviting a new tech industry in Earth and Lunar orbit. Participation in the Lunar Gateway Logistics program would have given Boeing an enormous technology and logistics edge in this new commercial space race. However, Boeing lost out and NASA will award the second slot alongside SpaceX to someone else. Instead of maintaining the foot in the door that they have enjoyed with SpaceX in the Commercial Crew program, Boeing will now miss the Moon boat and have to ride along with upcoming contenders Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin in future years.

Cost-plus contracts are rapidly falling out of favor…and Boeing with them. If and when they do come around and compete, any further achievements in Commercial Space for them will now be in SpaceX’s shadow.

Boeing Defense, Space & Security will need to reinvent itself, and quickly, before their falling reputation drags them into obscurity.

~ by Bill Housley on April 14, 2020.

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