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Boeing confirms next Starliner unmanned demo flight delayed until August

Capitalism in space: Boeing on April 17th confirmed what had already been rumored, that the second unmanned demo flight to ISS of Starliner, its manned capsule, has been delayed until August.

In a statement, Boeing said that the company and NASA are projecting the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission will take place in August or September. That date is “supported by a space station docking opportunity and the availability of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and Eastern Range.”

Boeing had been working toward a launch of OFT-2 in late March or early April. However, by early March, NASA officials acknowledged that was no longer likely because of delays from the replacement of avionics units on the spacecraft that were damaged by a power surge during ground tests, as well as power outages in the Houston area caused by a winter storm in February that interrupted software testing.

They still hope to make the first manned demo flight before the end of the year, assuming the summer unmanned flight goes as planned.

For Boeing, the sooner they get this capsule operational, the sooner it can start earning money by flying commercial flights. At the moment the delays have meant that SpaceX is getting all that business, with two private flights already scheduled and rumors that it will win a flight from the UAE as well. Furthermore, other commercial competitors are on the horizon, including both China and India.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

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15 comments

  • PR

    This wouldn’t have happened if they had gotten it right the first time. Funding two competitive companies is a good idea in general but paying one of them more money for poorer quality work is not a good idea, ever.

  • Michael

    Just out of curiosity a lot of folks talk about the funding discrepancy between SpaceX and Boeing. Can not this difference be explained by the fact that Boeing started from ground zero whereas SpaceX started from Dragon 1 which I understand NASA provided some funding. The main difference being that Boeing is still at ground zero.

  • Michael: You are correct. Boeing refused to do any up front development. It wanted NASA to pay for everything, which meant it had to charge more.

    It was this same strategy that I think also did in the Blue Origin and Dynectics bids for the lunar lander. They did not want to commit any significant company funds to development. NASA considered this refusal a lack of confidence on their part in their own product. SpaceX’s lower price, because it was not dependent on NASA’s money to build Starship, further helped.

  • mkent

    Can not this difference be explained by the fact that Boeing started from ground zero whereas SpaceX started from Dragon 1 which I understand NASA provided some funding.

    Yes. NASA didn’t just provide “some” funding for Dragon 1 but the bulk of the funding. That $400 million allowed SpaceX to stand up a supplier base and production line that they used for Dragon 2. NASA provided similar funding for Boeing, of course, but did so under the CCtCap contract since Boeing didn’t receive a COTS contract. People ignore that $400 million when complaining about Boeing’s higher price under CCtCap.

    But that’s only the second largest cause of the higher Boeing price tag. The highest by far is that Starliner is flying on an Atlas V while Dragon is flying on a Falcon 9. Starliner was designed to be launch-vehicle agnostic. It could fly on either Atlas V or Falcon 9. But since Dragon was already flying on Falcon 9 and NASA wanted their Commercial Crew suppliers to use different launch vehicles, Boeing had to fly on Atlas. That’s another $1 billion of difference.

    The fact of the matter is, if Starliner flew on Falcon 9 and Dragon flew on Atlas V, Boeing would be cheaper than SpaceX. I’ve pointed that out here before, but admitting that upsets the narrative.

  • PR

    MKent: I hadn’t seen that before and it’s a fair enough point. I admit to not having that depth of knowledge of the contract award details. However I can say with certainty that, under the crew program, Boeing received more funding (or even conceding your point, as much funding) and yet have still not provided the product they were paid to provide. I’ll also concede that their capsule may even in the long run be superior to Crew Dragon (how would I know). But as of today they haven’t delivered a successful uncrewed demo and their competitor did an uncrewed demo 2 years ago.

    Having at least two private companies with capsules is worth the extra money and helps our country develop a new space industry and infrastructure. It’s the right way to go. But my point stands that Boeing hasn’t yet delivered what they were paid for. I support them and wish them all the success in the world. But they need to get it done, already. And no one can dispute that if they got the last demo flight right, this one wouldn’t be necessary.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Boeing approached Commercial Crew as an opportunity to develop man-rated space hardware and have the government pay for it. Therefore they did not apply the best practices that they are well versed in, and use in their “real” business, the development and production of new aircraft.

    SpaceX saw Commercial Crew as their core business, and responded accordingly.

  • mkent

    But as of today they haven’t delivered a successful uncrewed demo and their competitor did an uncrewed demo 2 years ago…But my point stands that Boeing hasn’t yet delivered what they were paid for. I support them and wish them all the success in the world. But they need to get it done, already. And no one can dispute that if they got the last demo flight right, this one wouldn’t be necessary.

    I agree with all of that. I was just correcting the record — or perhaps more accurately adding detail to it — over the pricing differences on the CCtCap contract. Their performance on that contract leaves much to be desired, and criticism of it is fair. I’m just pushing for a more accurate criticism. It’s the only way we as a community can help guide the powers that be and keep them from making the same mistakes again.

  • mpthompson

    Therefore they did not apply the best practices that they are well versed in, and use in their “real” business, the development and production of new aircraft.

    After the 737Max fiasco, I’m wondering if you aren’t making some broad assumptions here.

  • Richard M

    mkent,

    But that’s only the second largest cause of the higher Boeing price tag. The highest by far is that Starliner is flying on an Atlas V while Dragon is flying on a Falcon 9. Starliner was designed to be launch-vehicle agnostic….The fact of the matter is, if Starliner flew on Falcon 9 and Dragon flew on Atlas V, Boeing would be cheaper than SpaceX.

    I’m seriously puzzled by this claim, which you have made before, as you say…

    Even a top end Atlas V 551 is only $153 million (base price) or so. We have no price for the N22, whose sole customer is Boeing (and being a ULA stakeholder, it is not out of the question that they might get a modestly reduced cost), but even with the second RL10 and human rating it is very hard to imagine it costing more than that (and probably a little less). That leaves us with a marginal launch cost difference of $70-90 million extra per launch over a Falcon 9, and the Commercial Crew contract only includes 6 operational flights plus 2 test flights. That only gets us, at most, an extra $600-700 million in cost. But Boeing is receiving over $2 billion more than SpaceX – $5.1 billion versus $3.1 billion – for the entirety of Commercial Crew development.

    Boeing does not do “cheap,” and it had no serious incentive to hack its bid down. It knew it was close to a shoe-in for the first slot (and if certain people had gotten their way, the only slot), because it was the trusted blue chip bidder. SpaceX had no such assurance, even with the success of Dragon 1. SpaceX never had to ask for a $287 million supplement in additional funding – Boeing did.

    On all evidence, Boeing Starliner is simply a more expensive crew vehicle to develop, build, and operate than Crew Dragon, exclusive of any launch costs considerations.

  • Ray Van Dune

    mpthompson, you raise a good point, but in a way, I think it reinforces mine. Boeing has consistently done a better job of bringing to market “clean sheet of paper” designs (777, 787) than the ultimate derivative, the 737 Max. I believe it was the “derivative” nature of the 737 Max that may have lulled Boeing engineers into thinking that they should solve an aerodynamic challenge with software. And I am sure that the marketing department insisted that the Max remain a “derivative” that did not require significant pilot retraining! These things were temptations that Boeing succumbed to that would not have presented such attractiveness in a brand new design.

    The 777 was Boeing’s first design executed digitally, and the 787 its first in composite materials. I think these paradigm shifts forced them to “do it right” regardless of cost. Seeing the 737 Max as just the next car on the 737 Gravy Train had the opposite effect, with deadly consequences.

  • mkent

    Even a top end Atlas V 551 is only $153 million (base price) or so.

    Perhaps now but not when the contract was signed. And with a fixed-priced contract, all of the costs would have been locked-in at the time of contract signing.

    At the time the contract was signed, an Atlas V 401 went for $163 million when accounting for fixed costs usually covered by a separate contract. The additional RL-10, two additional SRBs, and man-rating would have been on top of that. Based on known costs of RL-10s and Atlas V SRBs, an Atlas V N22 would have easily costs $125 million more than a Falcon 9 at the time.

    People forget just how much cost reduction ULA has been doing since then. They consolidated all engineering work at the Colorado facility. They consolidated all Delta IV, Delta II, Atlas V, Centaur, and now fairing production at the Decatur plant. They moved to a common upper stage engine, common avionics, and common ground support equipment. They replaced the Atlas V SRBs with much lower-cost GEM-63s.

    When you factor in the cost difference between the Atlas V and the Falcon 9 and then the $400 million for COTS that SpaceX got that Boeing didn’t, the difference between Dragon 2 and Starliner is only a couple hundred million dollars. Significant, but not a lot on a $4 billion contract.

  • mkent

    The 777 was Boeing’s first design executed digitally, and the 787 its first in composite materials.

    Due to technicalities I may have to concede the point on the 777. The YF-23 preceded the 777 by quite a few years, but despite Boeing designing and building a large chunk of it, it was technically a Northrop airplane.

    But the AV-8B preceded the 787 by a whole lot of years. Considering all of the troubles the F-35 has been having, I think the Harrier is still the mainstay of Marine aviation.

  • Edward

    mkent wrote: “NASA didn’t just provide “some” funding for Dragon 1 but the bulk of the funding.

    To be fair, since NASA is the only customer for Dragon 1, the contracts eventually supplied all the funding for Dragon 1, recovering all funds that SpaceX put up on its own and that outside investors put up (milestone #1 of the CRS contract), plus the profit for doing the job.

    Also to be fair, SpaceX had designed Dragon 1 in such a way as to be able to convert it into a manned vehicle using fewer resources than a design from scratch, which is how Starliner was designed. SpaceX’s award should have been less than Boeings, and so it was, because SpaceX had planned a way to save costs. Lower development costs should help Richard M understand the difference in awards. Sierra Nevada should also benefit from this thinking when developing their crewed Dream Chaser from the cargo version.

    This does not make Crew Dragon any better than Starliner, but it shows that planning for derivative designs is not as bad a thing as Ray Van Dune’s comment may lead people to believe. For instance, there are several versions of the 747 that work very well. Boeing had a serious leadership problem for the past few years, and I hope that is over.

    I think that Ray Van Dune is right that SpaceX as a company is more focused on manned spaceflight than Boeing. Another advantage is that SpaceX was forced to pay closer attention, as they did not have the same experience in human spaceflight that Boeing has. Boeing, unfortunately, got cocky about its software, and NASA was similarly cocky about Boeing’s management ability, based upon Boeing’s long experience. This is a lesson for NASA and Boeing, and SpaceX should pay attention and learn this lesson as well. Smart people learn from their own mistakes. Wise people learn from other people’s mistakes.

  • Richard M

    mkent,

    Perhaps now but not when the contract was signed. And with a fixed-priced contract, all of the costs would have been locked-in at the time of contract signing.

    No doubt the reworking of the second stage and other changes for human rating increased the cost of the Atlas, but…How do we know that Boeing even paid full sticker price for Atlas V at the time?

    There’s no question that Starliner has a more expensive ride than Dragon does. But it’s just not remotely enough to account for the $2 billion difference.

    When you factor in the cost difference between the Atlas V and the Falcon 9 and then the $400 million for COTS that SpaceX got that Boeing didn’t, the difference between Dragon 2 and Starliner is only a couple hundred million dollars. Significant, but not a lot on a $4 billion contract.

    A lot of that $396 million went to Falcon 9 development, however. Not all of it was used on Dragon. (SpaceX itself spent $454 million on Falcon 9 and Dragon 1 development, according to NASA.)

    Nor can we let Boeing off so lightly here. If it is true that SpaceX had a (planned) advantage of an existing vehicle which could provide not only some heritage crossover for a crewed version (albeit, a crew version which *would* end up deparing in more extensive ways from Dragon 1 than originally anticipated) as well as supply chains, Boeing was not exactly entering the project with empty pockets, either. Design work done not just for ISS but also the CEV competition and Orbital Express gave Boeing something more than just a blank sheet of paper to start with.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Richard M,

    Quite so. The way I usually explain that history is that SpaceX paid for Falcon 9 and NASA paid for Dragon 1. I suspect, but can’t prove, that SpaceX actually spent some unknown amount less than $454 million developing Falcon 9 and, thus, also paid for part of Dragon 1 out of its own pocket. But my little shorthand version is good enough.

    It is also quite true that Boeing was hardly starting with a clean sheet of paper anent Starliner Press releases from the time of its campaign to be named a Commercial Crew finalist repeatedly emphasized all the legacy hardware and software it intended to use. The engines on the Starliner service module, for example, are all pre-existing items. The Superdracos on CD2 were purpose-designed and built for just that vehicle.

    Boeing and NASA may be continuing to pretend, for now, that the Starliner CFT mission will still fly this year, but that looks all but impossible. When the NET date for OFT-2: Electric Boogaloo was still March, the CFT was penciled in for September, six months afterward. Now OFT-2 has slid to August or September – for which read September at the earliest – so CFT is all but certain to slide into 1Q 2022.

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