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Boeing uninterested in finding customers for Starliner outside of NASA?

Capitalism in space: According to a story yesterday, Boeing, ULA, and NASA plan on launching Starliner through the end of the decade on the last few Atlas-5 rockets in existence, which in turn suggests that Boeing is either not looking for any Starliner customers outside of NASA or has none.

With NASA planning to alternate between Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for International Space Station crew rotation missions once Starliner is certified, each flying once a year, it implies that Atlas 5 launches of Starliner could continue well into the latter half of the decade. ULA, which has stopped selling Atlas 5 launches, has previously discussed phasing out Atlas 5 in favor of Vulcan Centaur around the middle of the decade.

…Even at a pace of one mission a year, though, and with no other customers for Starliner, the supply of Atlas vehicles would be exhausted before the projected retirement of the ISS in 2030. “We would look, toward the end of the decade, to award other flights, or have other flights potentially for Boeing,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager. “We would look for a new system.” He added NASA would support human-rating a new system “when Boeing and ULA are ready.” [emphasis mine]

The implications of the story is that Boeing is simply not interested in finding other customers for Starliner, nor is it trying to find alternative launch vehicles to replace the Atlas-5. Instead, the company has simply calculated that there are enough Atlas-5s left to complete its obligations to NASA, and that is all it needs. Competing for additional commercial manned space flights does not interest it.

It also appears that only when NASA demands or needs another launch vehicle will Boeing and ULA make an effort to replace Atlas-5.

All in all, this does not speak well for the future of either Boeing or ULA. A lack of competitive spirit will quickly leave you in the dust, especially if a host of new startups exist to grab your market share. Either both companies change their attitudes, or both will die.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • MDN

    So while development was on their dime I’m guessing all of the NASA missions to ISS are booked to be Cost Plus contracts and they’re just going to milk this program for what they can while they can since they have no prayer of ever being commercially competitive.

    I have no data/info in this regard, just IMHO.

  • Jay

    I guess Boeing is not hungry. They certainly were hungry getting this manned capsule contract and pushed out Dream Chaser in the beginning.

  • Doubting Thomas

    In commercial crew, the launch vehicle was man-rated (unless the LV already rated) as part of the fixed price contract. Boeing seemed to fail to consider the dwindling number of Atlas V LV’s and surely did not suspect that they would be almost 3 years later to the game than SpaceX.

    I suspect Boeing is convinced that NASA will need their capsule enough to pay Boeing and ULA (which is 50% Boeing) for man rating on Vulcan. I also suspect that there will be plenty of political pressure on NASA to do just that. The greater pressurized volume of the capsule, the ability to carry more crew and ability to land on land will all be things we will be hearing about in the near future.

  • Col Beausabre

    “they’re just going to milk this program for what they can while they can”

    On the infamous Boston Consulting Group Matrix (known to every B School grad), this is the final stage of a product or a company’s participation in a market, “Dogs”. Invest only the amount needed to keep it going, declining over time to zero as revenues decrease, and get as much out of it as you can before it dies. Sell it if you can

  • Edward

    This makes it that much more important and urgent for Sierra Space to develop its manned version of Dream Chaser. We have several post-ISS space stations on the schedule, and they will need something to get crews to them. Having only SpaceX as a transport provider is a bad idea, as competition elicits improvements.

  • John

    Uncle Sam fed the feral corporation and now it’s dependent.

    On a less allegorical note, they might realize nobody’s going to pay more for a ride with crappy valves and thrusters. Not in space.

  • Col Beausabre

    “nobody’s going to pay more for a ride with crappy valves”

    Sounds like the bathroom in a $1/hour motel

    Not that I have any personal knowledge of such an establishment, of course.

  • James Street

    “Either both companies change their attitudes, or both will die.”

    The cancer of political correctness controls America’s corporations. Leftist HR departments rule with iron fists. It’s not about creating something cool, it’s about following leftist rules of “fairness”.

    It’s easier to give up than fight.

  • Alton

    It used to be the ‘Thing’ to go West Young Man and make your fortune…

    Boeing made the Great 747 and the break thru 707 in Seattle……

    After Buying Macdonald Douglas they moved to Chicago……..

    Today they are moving to be closer to their never-ending Olde Cow…in NOVA!

    Not the Saturn 5 designed follow on but Northern Virginia… smuggled up to Miss US Treasury…..

  • Patrick Underwood

    An alternative hypothesis: Boeing understands that Starship is Really A Thing and that they cannot possibly compete with it, either as Boeing or as ULA. If so, I congratulate them on their wisdom.

  • Patrick Underwood: That is an excellent point. However, there is plenty of time to cash in on potential customers before Starship is flying. SpaceX is certainly doing so. Boeing should be as well.

  • pawn

    I agree with Mr. Underwood but it’s not wise to put all your eggs in one basket. Starship has a number of very difficult hoops to pass through and the lack of escape and the very risky broomstick landing are things that could change the current media supported bandwagon.

    I remember how the Space Shuttle was heralded as the next big thing.

  • pawn

    Mr. Z,

    Boeing doesn’t have a rocket with a future. With all the money flying around DC, I think it would be wise to cut loose some cash to get Vulcan man-rated.

    Not sure how supportive Elon would be to having a “black” mission with all of the special requirements. Heck, he fought the Range over the flight termination requirement (and lost).

  • talgus

    worked with the B company on a joint contract. When giving our customer advice on wasteful spending, was told, if they want it they get it. Seems upper management is still there.

  • sippin_bourbon

    It is possible, as suggested, that they see Starship on the horizon, and see themselves as outclassed.

    This is short sighted.

    Working on the assumption that Commercial LEO Destinations (I do not remember the new acronym) succeeds, the desire for companies to shop around for the best fit and price to get their people and equipment to LEO would be paramount. They would already be spending a lot for whatever R&D they want to perform on orbit.

    Starship may life many at a time, but that might not be the best, the timeliest and the most cost effective for their needs. To see competition between Dragon, Dreamchaser and Starliner would ideal.

    This is all optimistic thinking on my part, of course. A switch from my usual cynicism. I am sure I will pay for it.

  • Edward

    Patrick Underwood wrote: “An alternative hypothesis: Boeing understands that Starship is Really A Thing and that they cannot possibly compete with it, either as Boeing or as ULA. If so, I congratulate them on their wisdom.

    The wise thing would be to make a rocket that competes with Starship. Otherwise the company, Boeing, is ceding this industry to those who do.

    Boeing has a lot of experience with developing and operating rockets and with developing and mass producing commercial airliners. They are in an excellent position to do well in this market. Instead, they move their headquarters to Washington D.C. in order to snuggle up to the smaller government market with no competitive rockets at all.

  • Edward

    Boeing’s decision to not commercialize Starliner is a disappointment. Not only for We the People, who paid a lot of money so that they would be a commercial provider, but also for NASA, for the same reason. NASA has been moving in the direction of commercializing space for the past decade and a half. It was a slow start, but NASA has become more enthusiastic in recent years.

    For half a decade, or so, I have been saying how exciting this decade would be in the space industry. Commercial space stations would come online early in the decade, and two commercial manned spacecraft would service them. Smallsats would create new business opportunities and new companies would start using space for their main source of revenue. Space Manufacturing for the benefit of we earthlings would begin shortly after the first space stations came online. I had expected Bigelow to have its first manned habitat on orbit within two years of the beginning of operations of the first commercial manned spacecraft, which would have been next year, and I expected them to put up another space station every year or two after that. I expected other companies to see the benefits and potential profits and would put up their own space stations. I had expected six or so commercial space stations by the end of the decade, and many more in the 2030s.

    Unfortunately, some of the expected companies have left the fields we expected them to contribute toward these successes. Bigelow is gone, leaving us dependent upon Axiom for an ISS-attached space station, and we can only hope that NASA will not impose the same restrictive rules that it holds over its own customers. These rules have stifled experimentation and manufacturing for the entire lifetime of the ISS, delaying advancements by a couple of decades. Axiom has not expressed plans to put up any other space stations, which suggests to me that it could be late this decade or sometime next decade before they put up their second one. We can expect a couple more other space stations, built by teams of companies, to fly late in the decade, meaning that commercial space stations will be fewer than I had expected, at least in this decade.

    The only thing that I see saving my earlier expectation would be the possibility that SpaceX puts up one or two manned Starships to act as space stations, but these would likely be individual missions and they likely would land back on Earth at the end of each mission rather than remain to continue as manned work platforms.

    Boeing is not planning to provide any transport to any space station other than the ISS, reducing the availability of transport to these stations to only the few SpaceX craft, at least until Sierra Space develops their own manned spacecraft. Starship could service these stations, but it is a massive craft to dock with them and for them to handle attitude control during the course of their missions. Starships could carry far more than these space stations can handle, both in terms of men and materiel. Starship is far oversized for space station transport.

    China and Russia have manned spacecraft that conceivably could be used by commercial space stations, but both countries seem stretched just to use their own craft to maintain their own space stations (Russia being a partner with ISS), so I do not expect any government spacecraft to be used for commercial space stations, at least not this decade.

    The delay in commercial manned spacecraft most likely led to the loss of Bigelow, because it didn’t have the transportation available as soon as expected. The delay in commercial space stations may have been a large factor in Boeing’s decision to not commercialize Starliner. They may not be seeing a large enough market to justify an expansion, which could mean that the problem from December 2019 was even more costly to them than we have previously thought. What if they had been successful, would they have had ability to gain more market share than SpaceX?

    Government has delayed Starship’s orbital testing by at least half a year, and SpaceX seemed to have had expectations to be able to have government permission to launch by July last year. The Space Shuttle had discouraged investment in space for three decades before this, too.

    Back in the 1960s, we thought that government, through NASA, was the solution to space exploration and expansion, but it turned out to be the problem — the obstacle that was in the way of commercializing space — and with Congress’s limited interest and limited funding, we were not getting the advancements and exploration that NASA had planned. Congress’s limited imagination did not see many benefits coming from space, and so they made that prophecy self fulfilling by failing to fund the ability to create many benefits from space and limiting the ability for commercial access to space so that the rest of us could create the benefits that We the Peoplecould see coming from space.

    From the mid 1960s to the late 1990s, commercial space was almost exclusively communication satellites, although starting in the late 1980s Orbital Sciences had a few launches of small satellites. Ikonos began commercial Earth observation in 1999, cracking open another commercial space industry. 1999 was the year the cubsat was invented, which a decade later took off as another common commercial space platform, making doing business in space much less expensive that in the past. It took the announcement of the end of the Space Shuttle before commercial space could find investment, but investors were still shy in 2009, when Kistler could not find investors despite a NASA contract to start commercial resupply of the ISS. Many people thought that US commercial space could not operate successfully, and investors didn’t become enthusiastic until it looked like commercial manned space would be successful.

    NASA had once been a technological powerhouse, but over the decades Congress has politicized the technical aspects more and more, reducing the technological advancements and increasing the squandering of taxpayer money and the squandering of the talents, skills, and knowledge of NASA’s scientists, engineers, and technicians. Congress even saw itself, collectively, as a rocket scientist, directing NASA as to how to design the SLS rocket.

    It isn’t just the direct financial costs, but it is the indirect opportunity costs of what could have been. What would this decade look like if Boeing saw the amount of potential business to justify commercializing Starliner? They had foreseen enough business back when they took the contract for Starliner, but they don’t see it anymore.

    In all aspects of life, business, and society, even in space and even with NASA, government is the problem, not the solution. Government is a very expensive cluster.

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