While Boeing struggled with the Starliner, SpaceX pounced

The story of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, NASA’s bold venture a decade ago to entrust human spaceflight to two companies, is a story of contrast—an incredible rise to prominence for one and an equally incredible fall from grace for the other.

SpaceX has emerged as the world’s leading space company, using its lucrative contracts and relationship with NASA to design a rocket and spacecraft that helped it disrupt the space market, restore human spaceflight in the United States after the retirement of the space shuttle, and build multibillion- dollar business that now launches a rocket every few days.

Boeing, on the other hand, is now finally ready to launch its first human spaceflight mission on Wednesday at 10:52 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Fla., after two launch attempts were rejected due to mechanical problems with the rocket. Boeing has faced mechanical and software problems with its Starliner spacecraft that cost $1.4 billion, counting overruns, and have caused immeasurable damage to its reputation as the nation’s leading airline.

Its first manned flight was aborted again on Saturday, this time due to a computer problem with the rocket, which is operated by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The flight would carry NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry «Butch» Wilmore to the International Space Station and last about eight days, in a mission to test how the spacecraft performs in space with humans on board.

After Boeing completes the flight, NASA would certify the Starliner to fly regular crew rotation missions to the space station, carrying the full contingent of four astronauts for a six-month stay. NASA was eager for Boeing to fly to give the space agency another spacecraft alongside SpaceX, which has been sending crews to the station since 2020.


Concise stories to keep you informed quickly

While Boeing has struggled, its delays have been in stark contrast to SpaceX’s success and underscore the gulf between how the two companies operate. Despite growing to more than 10,000 employees in multiple locations, SpaceX still operates as a scrappy, agile start-up. He innovates quickly, tests hardware until it breaks, sometimes even causes explosions, then makes adjustments and tries again and again until it works. Instead of contracting with other companies for many of the parts that go into its vehicles, SpaceX builds most of its rockets and spacecraft in-house.

As a major defense contractor, Boeing operates in a more traditional manner and flies when it thinks all hardware and subsystems have been thoroughly tested on the ground. The commercial crew contract structure, a «fixed price,» meaning the companies take all cost overruns, was a difficult adjustment for Boeing, which typically had «cost-plus» contracts with the government that reimbursed the company if it went over budget.

The upcoming manned flight, then, is a critical milestone, one that Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, said is an «existential» moment for the company.

Boeing’s first crewed test flight was originally scheduled for May 6, but hours before the scheduled launch time, the teams noticed that a valve that regulates pressure and pushes fuel flow on the second stage of the Atlas V rocket was not working properly and canceled the launch. . The teams replaced the valve, but then discovered a helium leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system, which officials said was so small it wouldn’t pose a problem for the flight.

On Saturday, the Starliner was in the final four minutes of the launch countdown when an automated computer aborted the launch because one of the computer systems was slow to connect. If Wednesday’s attempt is rejected, NASA said Boeing could try again on Thursday. After that, however, the Atlas V rocket would have to return from the launch pad to replace the batteries, delaying the flight by at least an additional 10 days.

Ahead of the test mission, NASA and Boeing have repeatedly said that they will take the utmost care to ensure that the flight is as safe as possible and that the lives of the astronauts on board are their top priority. Delays are normal in spaceflight, especially when humans are in a spacecraft that has never flown with humans.

However, the road to this point was long and painful. In December 2019, Boeing thought the Starliner was ready for its first unmanned test flight. It didn’t go well. The built-in computer of the autonomous capsule was turned off for 11 hours, so the spacecraft began to execute commands for a completely different part of the flight.

Engineers also soon discovered another software problem, which could have caused the service module to crash into the crew capsule during separation before re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The problems were so serious that NASA officials said the spacecraft could have been lost because of any one of them, threatening the lives of the astronauts, if anyone had been aboard. The flight never reached the space station, but returned successfully.

The next launch attempt, in 2021, never got off the ground because several valves in the capsule’s service module were corroded shut. It finally made a successful unmanned flight to the station in 2022, but then discovered flammable tape in the capsule that needed to be removed, as well as problems with the parachute system.

NASA and Boeing said in April that they had resolved all of these issues and were ready. «I can say with certainty that the teams absolutely did their due diligence,» said James Free, NASA’s associate administrator. Since then, the test flight has been postponed five times.

SpaceX also initially had a series of setbacks that worried NASA. Two of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded, one in 2015, the other in 2016. And during tests of the emergency abort system in 2019, the Dragon capsule that was supposed to carry the astronauts also exploded.

But since then, SpaceX has flown multiple missions for NASA, as well as taken private astronauts to the station and into orbit. He also received an extension of his contract with NASA to fly astronaut missions.

His relationship with NASA has been building for a long time. SpaceX was originally awarded the contract in 2006 as part of a program to begin developing cargo transport to the space station, an award that essentially saved it from bankruptcy. In 2008, it was awarded a $1.6 billion contract to begin flying resupply missions to the station.

As NASA began to rely on its own rockets and spacecraft, SpaceX argued that the Pentagon should too, and eventually the company began winning contracts to fly some of the most sensitive national security satellites in space.

The government’s investment in SpaceX, as well as the company’s high flight rate, in-house manufacturing and efficient business practices — along with CEO Elon Musk’s relentless drive to push his employees to work harder and faster — have allowed it to offer launches at far higher prices than of its competitors, which in turn allowed it to capture more business and revenue.

As it grew, SpaceX began building a constellation of satellites, called Starlink, that would allow users to access the Internet, even from remote locations. SpaceX now operates about 6,000 Starlink satellites and says it has 3 million customers.

In addition to flying its Falcon 9 rocket, which launched nearly 100 times last year, an unprecedented rate, it is now working on the development of its next-generation Starship rocket, the most powerful ever flown.

As SpaceX’s capabilities grew, so did NASA’s confidence and investment in the company.

In 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use Starship to land astronauts on the moon. On each of the first three test flights, Starship made methodical progress. The fourth could come as early as Thursday, the day Boeing hopes the Starliner will finally reach the space station.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *