Boeing’s second Starliner mission to the ISS is a watershed moment

Now Boeing is going to redo this high-stakes mission. On August 3, Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, will once again send Starliner to the ISS. The company cannot afford another failure.

“There’s a lot of credibility at stake here,” says Greg Autry, space policy expert at Arizona State University. “Nothing is more visible than the space systems that pilot humans.”

The afternoon of July 30 was a stark reminder of this visibility. After Russia’s new 23-ton multipurpose Nauka module docked with the ISS, it began firing its thrusters unexpectedly and uncontrollably, moving the ISS from its correct and normal position in orbit. NASA and Russia fixed the issue and stabilized things in less than an hour, but we still don’t know what happened, and it’s troubling to think about what might have happened if the conditions had been worse. The entire incident is still under investigation and has forced NASA to postpone the Starliner launch from July 31 to August 3.

It is precisely this kind of near-disaster that Boeing wants to avoid, for OFT-2 and any future mission with people on board.

How Starliner got here

The end of the space shuttle program in 2011 allowed NASA to rethink its approach. Instead of building a new spacecraft designed to travel in low earth orbit, the agency chose to open up opportunities to the private sector under a new commercial crew program. He awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to build their own crewed vehicles: Starliner and Crew Dragon, respectively. NASA would buy flights on these vehicles and focus its own efforts on creating new technology for missions to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere.

The two companies experienced development delays, and for nine years the only way NASA got to space was to hand over millions of dollars to Russia for seats on the Soyuz missions. SpaceX finally sent astronauts into space in May 2020 (followed by two more crewed missions since), but Boeing is still lagging behind. His December 2019 flight was supposed to prove that all of his systems were working, and that he was able to dock with the ISS and return to Earth safely. Corn a bug with its internal clock caused him to perform a critical burn prematurely, making docking to the ISS impossible.

Subsequent investigation revealed that a second glitch would have caused Starliner to fire its thrusters at the wrong time during its descent to Earth, which could have destroyed the spacecraft. This issue was fixed just a few hours before Starliner came home. Software issues aren’t unexpected in spacecraft development, but they are things Boeing could have solved in advance with better quality control or better NASA surveillance.

Boeing has had 21 months to fix these issues. NASA never demanded another Starliner flight test; Boeing chose to do it again and foot the $ 410 million bill on its own.

“I expect the test to go perfectly,” says Autry. “These problems involved software systems, and these should be easily resolved.”

What’s at stake

If things go wrong, the repercussions will depend on what those things are. If the spacecraft encountered another round of software glitches, there would likely be hell to pay, and it’s very difficult to see how Boeing’s relationship with NASA could be restored. Catastrophic failure for other reasons would also be bad, but space is volatile, and even small problems that are difficult to anticipate and control can lead to explosive results. It is perhaps more forgivable.

If the new test is unsuccessful, NASA will still work with Boeing, but a new flight “could be in a few years,” said Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “NASA would likely return to SpaceX for more flights, putting Boeing even more at a disadvantage.”

Boeing needs OFT-2 for reasons beyond just fulfilling its contract with NASA. Neither SpaceX nor Boeing built its new vehicles to carry out ISS missions – they each had bigger ambitions. “There is a real demand [for access to space] of high net worth individuals, demonstrated since the beginning of the 2000s, when several flew on the Russian Soyuz, ”explains Autry. “There is also a very solid activity in piloting the Sovereign Astronaut Corps of many countries that are not ready to build their own vehicles.”

SpaceX will prove to be very tough competition. He has private missions — his own and through Axiom space– already planned for the next few years. More are to come, especially since Axiom, Sierra Nevada, and other companies are planning to build private space stations for paying visitors.

The biggest problem with Boeing is the cost. NASA pays the company $ 90 million per seat to transport astronauts to the ISS, compared to SpaceX’s $ 55 million per seat. “NASA can afford it because after the shuttle problems, the agency didn’t want to become dependent on a single flight system – if it goes down, everything stops,” Handberg explains. But private citizens and other countries are likely to choose the cheaper and more experienced option.

Boeing could definitely use some good PR these days. It is building the main booster of the $ 20 billion plus space launch system, which is expected to be the most powerful rocket in the world. But high costs and massive delays have turned it into a lightning rod for criticism. Meanwhile, alternatives like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Super Heavy, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and ULA’s Vulcan Centaur have appeared or are expected to debut in the next few years. In 2019, the Inspector General of NASA examined potential fraud in Boeing contracts worth $ 661 million. And the company is one of the main characters at the center of a criminal investigation involving a previous bid for a lunar lander contract.

If there ever was a time when Boeing wanted to remind people of what it is capable of and what it can do for the US space program, it is next week.

“Another failure would put Boeing so far behind SpaceX that they might have to consider major changes in their approach,” Handberg said. “For Boeing, it’s the show.”

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