While Boeing struggled with the Starliner, SpaceX soared

The story of NASA’s Business Team program, NASA’s bold attempt to outsource human spaceflight to a pair of companies a decade ago, is a different story — one of an improbable rise to prominence and the other of an equally improbable fall from grace. .

SpaceX has emerged as the world’s leading space company, using its lucrative contracts and relationship with NASA to disrupt the space market, restore human spaceflight to the United States after the retirement of the space shuttle, and design a rocket and spacecraft. – Dollar trading is now rocketing every few days.

Boeing, on the other hand, is set to launch its first manned space flight at 10:52 a.m. Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., after two launch attempts were scuppered by mechanical problems in the rocket. Boeing faced mechanical and software problems with its Starliner spacecraft that cost $1.4 billion and counting and did immeasurable damage to its reputation as the nation’s premier space agency.

The rocket, operated by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, had its first manned flight aborted again on Saturday due to computer problems. The flight will carry NASA astronauts Sunitha Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore to the International Space Station for a roughly eight-day mission to test how the spacecraft fares in space.

Once Boeing completes the flight, NASA will certify the Starliner to fly regular crew rotation missions to the space station, carrying four astronauts aboard for a six-month stay. NASA is interested in flying Boeing to provide the space agency with another shuttle in addition to SpaceX, which has been flying crews to the airport since 2020.

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While Boeing has struggled, its delays stand in stark contrast to SpaceX’s success and highlight the gulf between the way the two companies operate. Despite growing to more than 10,000 employees across multiple platforms, SpaceX still operates like a scrappy start-up and can move with speed. It innovates quickly, testing hardware until it breaks, sometimes triggering explosions, then making adjustments and trying again and again until it gets it right. Instead of contracting with other companies for many of the parts that go into its vehicles, SpaceX builds its rockets and spacecraft in-house.

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As a major defense contractor, Boeing operates in a very traditional manner, and flies when it thinks all hardware and subsystems have been thoroughly tested on the ground. The structure of the trade group agreement, a “fixed-price” one that means companies eat more of any costs, was a difficult adjustment for Boeing, which typically had “cost-plus” contracts with the government. Budget.

The upcoming crew flight, an important milestone, is an “existential” moment for the agency, said Deputy NASA Administrator Pam Melroy.

Boeing’s first crewed test flight was originally scheduled for May 6, but two hours before the scheduled launch time, crews noticed that a valve that regulates pressure and pushes the flow of propellants on the second stage of the Atlas V rocket had malfunctioned. . Crews replaced the valve, but later discovered a helium leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system, which officials said was too small to cause a problem for the flight.

On Saturday, Starliner was in the final four minutes of the countdown to launch when one of the computer systems was slow to come online, causing an automatic computer to stop the launch. If Wednesday’s attempt is cleared, NASA said Boeing could try again Thursday. However, after that, the Atlas V rocket will have to pull back from the launch pad to replace the batteries, which will delay the flight by at least 10 days.

In the run-up to the test mission, NASA and Boeing repeatedly said they would take utmost care to ensure the flight was made as safely as possible, and that the lives of the astronauts on board would be a priority. Delays in space travel are normal, especially when humans travel in unmanned spacecraft.

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However, getting to this point was a long and painful road. In December 2019, Boeing thought the Starliner was ready for its first test flight without anyone. It didn’t go well. The autonomous capsule’s internal computer shut down for 11 hours, so the spacecraft began running commands for an entirely different part of the flight.

Engineers soon discovered a second software problem, which may have caused the crew capsule’s service module to malfunction during separation prior to re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The problems were so severe that NASA officials said the spacecraft could be lost, threatening the lives of the astronauts. The flight did not reach 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 corroded and closed. It finally made a successful flight to the station in 2022, but later discovered flammable tape in the capsule, which had to be removed, and problems with the parachute system.

NASA and Boeing announced in April that they were ready to fix all those problems. “I can say with confidence that the teams have done their full due diligence,” said NASA Associate Administrator James Frei. The test flight was postponed five times.

SpaceX also initially had a series of setbacks for NASA. Two of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded, one in 2015 and the other in 2016. And during a test of its emergency abort system in 2019, the Dragon capsule carrying the astronauts also exploded.

But since then, SpaceX has made several missions for NASA, as well as carrying private astronauts to the station and into orbit. It has also received an extension of its contract with NASA to fly astronauts.

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Its relationship with NASA was built over a long period of time. SpaceX won a contract in 2006 as part of a program to improve cargo transport to the space station. In 2008, it won a $1.6 billion contract to begin flying supply missions to the station.

As NASA began to rely on its rockets and spacecraft, SpaceX argued that the Pentagon should too, and the company eventually won contracts to send some of the nation’s most important national security satellites into space.

The government’s investment in SpaceX and 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 deliver higher-priced launches. Below its competitors, it allowed it to capture more business and revenue.

As it grows, SpaceX has moved to build a constellation of satellites called Starlink that will allow users to access the Internet from remote locations. SpaceX now operates about 6,000 Starlink satellites and says it has 3 million customers.

It is now working on developing its next-generation Starship rocket, the most powerful rocket ever flown, in addition to its Falcon 9 rocket, which launched nearly 100 times last year, at an unprecedented rate.

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

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

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