You’ve Come a Long Way, Starliner!

Boeing’s Starliner orbiter successfully launched last Thursday on an Atlas IV rocket and then docked with the International Space Station (ISS) last Friday. This achieved a basket of bullet points that Boeing needed to eventually transport not only NASA astronauts to the ISS but also hopefully also commercial space customers to non-government space stations in the future.

It has been a much longer, much rougher road to space for the Starliner than anyone would have anticipated. The new contracting paradigm that NASA prefers to use, Fixed Price, isn’t how Boeing is accustomed to working with NASA. It doesn’t fit into Boeing Aerospace’s business model for government contracting. For decades, they’ve built spacecraft for other folks to own…and the owner absorbs any extra costs caused by delays and failures.

That’s in the past now. NASA (and by extension, Congress) will not own the Starliner. Boeing will own it and it will be tested and certified to fly any crew anywhere in Earth orbit the way the SpaceX Crew Dragon does. Until then, Boeing must eat any extra risk and often has to spend money upfront and do other things for which they don’t have experience.

The New Space fanbase hates Boeing. They’ve always hated them…making them the black sheep of the flock, at least in the eyes of the media. However, everyone…including the New Space industry and NASA, need them to adapt and compete in the new arena in order to build a thriving orbital space industry controlled by capitalism instead of Congressional politics.

I’m told that internally, away from the crowds and politics, all space engineers get along swimmingly. They all want the same thing, inexpensive and routine access to space. They get together and shake hands and party together at conferences and the like whether Old Space or New Space. I personally felt great in the early years of NASA’s Commercial Crew program watching Boeing work to move out of their comfort zone and participate in this aggressive new wave of the future, though I criticized them here for their prima-donna, lobbyist-focused attitude and mistrusted their apparent long-range dedication to the idea of spacecraft ownership. I held out great hope for them, and I still do, even though I’ve long suspected that they won their Commercial Crew contract with NASA in part because Congress hoped that they could return the momentum back to the more Congressionally controlled, Cost Plus contracting paradigm and turn Fixed Price contracting into a short-term fad.

Please understand, the military procurement style Cost Plus procurement model that NASA inherited from the U.S. Defense Department at its founding…where Congressfolk, government procurement officials, and a very small handful of very large companies, all roll around together in a big bed full of taxpayer money. That system got us to the moon but was unsustainably expensive. It has NOT gotten us to Mars, nor back to the Moon but instead sucked money and energy out of space innovation and development and has kept the NASA crewed spaceflight going in circles in Low Earth Orbit for most of my life.

Both SpaceX and Boing struggled over their respective capsules’ parachutes, as well as Congressional attempts to starve the Commercial Crew program of funding. As a result, it took many years longer to get around to the first actual test flights, which added additional fixed costs to both of these companies that weren’t budgeted into their contract awards. NASA wanted three contractors, but Congress forced them to down-select to two and the Sierra Nevada space plane got the ax.

Also, NASA seems still overly accustomed to the convenience of being able to dictate late design changes that cost the contractors more money to implement, but within Fixed-Price contracts that don’t compensate the contractors adequately for those changes. Both SpaceX and Boeing had to shoulder that annoyance, but SpaceX was in a better position to weather it because they were looking at the program through a much larger lens. While Boeing sees their Starliner capsule as a way of making money far into the future, like developing an aircraft design that will be built and flown for decades, SpaceX sees Dragon as just a rung on its ladder to Mars.

Still, everyone expected Boeing’s contract to cost more money…and it did. We expected them to whine louder than SpaceX for even more money…which they did. Everyone expected SpaceX to move a little bit faster and be lighter on their feet when it came to solving new problems, and they didn’t disappoint. However, everyone also expected Boeing’s far superior experience to win out in the end and shine as an example, dragging them through their tight fit in the new industry and bringing them up to a close second to SpaceX.

That didn’t happen. While many appreciate that Boeing participated in the Commercial Crew Development program and brought Congressional funding with them, they disappointed all of us, including their own fanbase and stockholders, with how poorly they performed at developing the technology. Accustomed to past projects with more software development and testing by NASA, they failed miserably in that area, resulting in a failed and mostly wasted first test flight. The second attempt at a first test flight failed to fly because of a new and weird valve problem on their capsule. This issue inexplicably puzzled and surprised them and caused them not only to cancel the flight at the last minute, but to also remove the flight from the flight schedule, drag the assembled United Launch Alliance rocket off the pad, remove the spacecraft from its booster, and recall it back to the factory in shame. The software issue and the valve issues both came across looking like rooky errors that many expected and didn’t get from SpaceX with their wet paint newness, aggressive innovation, and “try it till it flies” approach to testing…not from the vaunted Boeing; the oldest, largest, and most prolific spacecraft builder on the planet. Due to all these problems, the SpaceX crew dragon beat the Boeing Starliner to orbit by three years and almost two months.

Despite all that the Starliner not only flew but flew well. It had some engine malfunctions that it shouldn’t have had (since they had also shown up in ground testing) but redundancy won out. They will of course need to fix those engine issues before they fly again, but it was probably something simple.

The Boeing Starliner then completed its tests at the Space Station and landed yesterday. Boeing needed a good mission. The next flight will carry a crew and after that, the world will have a fully competitive pair of crewed launch providers, not just for NASA but for anyone else who can do business with SpaceX or Boeing. NASA and SpaceX needed another functioning Commercial Crew partner and our troubled world needed some good news that paints a path to a better future.

Russia has announced that they will leave the Space Station partnership because of the economic sanctions against them and have provided their one-year notice. Maybe NASA and their various other partners can operate the ISS without Russia, though it was deliberately designed for both sides to need each other. If we can’t operate the ISS without Russia and Russia’s departure means the end of the program, it would not leave Boeing much of an opportunity to work their contract once they’re operational. Many don’t think the Russian space program will go far on its own, but right now the U.S. State Department and voters are in no mood to care…since Russia has been leveraging the ISS partnership to pressure the U.S. to allow Soviet-style aggression against Ukraine. Maybe the U.S. and its other partners can replace the Russian component of the ISS…but the world would still be safer with the U.S. and Russia as partners and friends tied together with threads of common interest.

Once we have two operating commercial rides to space, politics…be it Congressional or International…will become irrelevant in less than five years as several companies complete and fly their various space station projects.

~ by Bill Housley on May 26, 2022.

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