A review of Boeing’s struggling space effort

Link here. [now fixed] The article, entitled “As Boeing Struggles To Fix Its Airliner Business, Elon Musk Is Eating Its Lunch In Space,” is a remarkably accurate overview of Boeing’s space effort, considering it comes from a mainstream press outlet. This paragraph will give you its flavor:

New competition could also threaten Boeing’s lucrative Space Launch System. Nicknamed the “Senate Launch System” for its origins in 2010 as a pork-barrel program to preserve jobs with the Space Shuttle winding down, NASA procured the rocket with “cost-plus” contracts – totaling $13.8 billion for Boeing so far – which means the contractor is guaranteed its expenses will be covered, plus a profit. Critics say that’s encouraged cost overruns. NASA’s inspector general has pegged the cost of a single Artemis launch at $4.1 billion, which he characterized last year as “unsustainable,” with total spending on the program projected to top $90 billion by 2025. For reference, NASA’s budget this year is $25 billion.

“This is a sucking chest wound on NASA and their ability to actually advance planetary science and lunar programs,” said Chris Quilty, founder of the space -focused financial services firm Quilty Analytics.

That $13.8 billion figure is accurate as to what NASA has paid Boeing, though it underestimates the actual cost of SLS, which is more than twice that.

Read it all. It suggests Boeing faces very tough times ahead in space.

NASA, Boeing, and the UAE negotiating partnership for building Lunar Gateway airlock

According to press reports in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that country is negotiating with NASA and Boeing on a partnership to build an airlock module for NASA’s Lunar Gateway Moon space station.

US aerospace company Boeing said it has held discussions with Emirates officials about the UAE providing an airlock module on the Lunar Gateway. This is an airtight room that astronauts would use to enter and exit the space station.

John Mulholland, vice president and International Space Station programme manager at Boeing, told The National that the company was “actively working” with the UAE on the concept and design.

It appears the UAE is offering to pay Boeing to build it for NASA, and would expect in exchange a larger share in the use of the station.

If this deal works out, the UAE will essentially replace Russia as a Gateway partner. Russia had signed an agreement with NASA in 2017 to build that airlock, but that deal is now null and void following the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and its desire to partner with China instead.

For the U.S., this is a win-win, since it will now be an American company building the airlock, not Russia.

NASA extends Boeing’s contract to produce more SLS rockets

NASA yesterday announced that it will pay Boeing $3.2 billion for two more SLS rockets.

NASA has finalized its contract with Boeing of Huntsville, Alabama, for approximately $3.2 billion to continue manufacturing core and upper stages for future Space Launch System (SLS) rockets for Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond.

Under the SLS Stages Production and Evolution Contract action, Boeing will produce SLS core stages for Artemis III and IV, procure critical and long-lead material for the core stages for Artemis V and VI, provide the exploration upper stages (EUS) for Artemis V and VI, as well as tooling and related support and engineering services.

All this really means is that NASA is going depend on SLS and Orion to fly its astronauts to and from the Moon, and because of that its pace of flight will be — at best — slow and long-drawn out. For example, this new order extends the contract out to 2028. It will thus leave plenty of time for SpaceX and other nations to get there first.

I predict that the private Starship missions paid for by Yusaku Maezawa and Jared Isaacman will both fly before these two new Artemis missions. You heard it here first.

Last 747 rolls off assembly line

Boeing earlier this week completed assembly of its very last 747 airplane, the 1,574th such plane built in the past half century.

Still in its iridescent green protective coating, the giant aircraft was towed out of the widebody aircraft factory in a low-key exercise without any fanfare. Once the 747 has been cleared, it will be flown to another Boeing facility where it will be painted in the Atlas Air livery in anticipation of final delivery to the customer next year.

The 747 was born out of a failed bid by Boeing to market a large jet transporter to the US military in the 1960s. That contract for what became the C-5A Galaxy eventually went to Lockheed, but Boeing was convinced that its basic design, with its high-bypass turbofan engine, could be reworked for the civilian market, which was booming at the time.

On January 9, 1969, the first 747 prototype took to the skies over Washington state. It was a staggering 225 feet (68.5 m) long, had a wing area larger than a basketball court, and the tail was as high as a six-story building.

Without question the 747 was one of the safest and well designed airplanes ever built. It was years after that first flight before one was involved in an accident, and that was not due to a failure of the plane itself. It also flew like a dream, its large size making it look like it was lumbering slowly in the air. Its retirement is almost entirely related to fuel cost-savings, since the 747 has four engines and thus more fuel than more modern planes.

Blue Origin-led team bids for NASA manned lunar lander contract

Capitalism in space: Though few details have been released, Blue Origin has teamed up with Boeing and Lockheed Martin to bid for a NASA contract to build a second manned lunar lander, after SpaceX’s Starship.

Blue Origin revealed its team’s submission to that second NASA program in a brief statement posted on its website on Tuesday, saying “in partnership with NASA, this team will achieve sustained presence on the Moon.”

The deadline for proposals was Tuesday. NASA is expected to make an award decision in June 2023.

Blue Origin’s team also includes spacecraft software firm Draper, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics, a manufacturer of military and civil robotic systems that was acquired by Blue Origin in January.

It will be interesting to see if this proposed lander is significantly different than the previous proposal, which NASA considered overpriced and not as capable as Starship.

Boeing announces major reorganization

Boeing yesterday announced that it is doing a major reorganization of its defense, space, and security divisions.

The action will replace numerous executives while reducing eight different divisions into four.

Such action was long overdue, considering Boeing’s many recent engineering failures, from space (Starliner) to aviation (737-Max), all of which demanded such a reorganization and consolidation, simply to pay the bills if not to fix serious management shortcomings. The bad economy has only made this more urgent.

X-37B returns successfully to Earth after 908 days in orbit

One of the two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles that Boeing built for the military successfully returned to Earth early this morning after completing 908 days in orbit, a new longevity record.

This was the sixth mission of the crewless reusable plane, built by Boeing and jointly operated by the U.S. Space Force and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Known as Orbital Test Vehicle 6, it launched to orbit May 17, 2020, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

On this mission the X-37B carried several U.S. military and NASA science experiments, including a Naval Research Laboratory project to capture sunlight and convert it into direct current electrical energy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy’s FalconSat-8, which remains in orbit.

It appears, based on the amount of information released after landing, that the Space Force is making more of what it does and will do on this and future X-37B flights more public.

NASA delays first manned Starliner mission again

NASA today announced that it has rescheduled the first manned demo mission of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to ISS from February to April, 2023.

The agency attributes the two month delay to scheduling conflicts with other visiting spacecraft at ISS. This might be true, but it also could be that Boeing wanted a little extra time to finish out the work it still needs to do to fix the anomalies that occurred on the unmanned demo mission, as well preparing the new capsule for launch.

This flight will carry two astronauts to ISS for about two weeks. The press release also noted this interesting tidbit:

The previously flown crew module, named Calypso, will be connected to a new service module later this year.

Apparently Boeing has decided to give names to these capsules, like SpaceX has. It also appears that the company and NASA are satisfied enough with the condition of the capsule after flying the unmanned demo flight to use it again for a manned mission.

Boeing’s write-off due to Starliner delays goes up to nearly $900 million

Capitalism in space: In a SEC filing on October 26, 2022, Boeing revealed that it has been required to spend another $195 million to cover the additional costs due to the further delays in getting Starliner launched, bringing the company’s total expense now to $883 million.

Boeing acknowledged today that it is taking a further $195 million charge against earnings for the CST-100 Starliner commercial crew program. Developed through a fixed-price contract with NASA, Starliner has encoutered a number of delays and Boeing must cover those costs. Added to $688 million already taken, the company now is spending $883 million of its own money on the program.

Boeing’s original fixed-price contract was for $4.2 billion, and included the test flights as well as six operational flights to ISS. However, numerous problems caused repeated delays and the need to fly a second unmanned test flight. Originally planned for the spring of 2020, the first manned Starliner flight is now targeting February 2023, three years behind schedule. Due to that delay, SpaceX’s Dragon ended up getting new contracts that included many of the later operational flights that Boeing would have earned. Right now, even if the capsule begins flying in ’23, NASA’s already purchased six flights will cover its needs through around ’26.

After that, NASA will still need to buy manned flights, if only to get to the new commercial space stations being built, and Starliner will then be an option. This just means however that it will take Boeing a long time to recover its Starliner losses. And that assumes customers begin to line up to buy flights.

September 14, 2022 Quick space links

Links courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay, who does the trolling on Twitter so I don’t have to. Commentary however is mostly by yours truly.

SpaceX launches another 51 Starlink satellites and orbital tug

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully used its Falcon 9 rocket to place 51 more Starlink satellites into orbit, as well as a Sherpa orbital tug built by the commercial company Spaceflight.

The first stage completed its seventh flight, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic. The tug was successfully deployed and will carry a Boeing test satellite for a proposed 147 satellite constellation to its planned orbit.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

40 SpaceX
34 China
11 Russia
6 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 55 to 34 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 55 to 52. SpaceX’s 40 launches matches the U.S.’s entire total in 2020, and was only exceeded by the U.S. six times since the dawn of the space age in 1957.

NASA is paying Boeing twice as much as SpaceX for its manned flights

Capitalism in space: in an excellent analysis of the total amount NASA will pay both SpaceX and Boeing for all their manned flights to ISS before the station retires, Eric Berger at Ars Technica has determined that the agency will essentially pay Boeing twice as much per flight.

In 2014, NASA narrowed the crew competition to just two companies, Boeing and SpaceX. At that time, the space agency awarded Boeing $4.2 billion in funding for development of the Starliner spacecraft and six operational crew flights. Later, in an award that NASA’s own inspector general described as “unnecessary,” NASA paid Boeing an additional $287.2 million. This brings Boeing’s total to $4.49 billion, although Finch told Ars that Boeing’s contract value as of August 1, 2022, is $4.39 billion.

For the same services, development of Crew Dragon and six operational missions, NASA paid SpaceX $2.6 billion. After its initial award, NASA has agreed to buy an additional eight flights from SpaceX—Crew-7, -8, -9, -10, -11, -12, -13, and -14—through the year 2030. This brings the total contract awarded to SpaceX to $4.93 billion.

Since we now know how many flights each company will be providing NASA through the lifetime of the International Space Station, and the full cost of those contracts, we can break down the price NASA is paying each company per seat by amortizing the development costs.

Boeing, in flying 24 astronauts, has a per-seat price of $183 million. SpaceX, in flying 56 astronauts during the same time frame, has a seat price of $88 million. Thus, NASA is paying Boeing 2.1 times the price per seat that it is paying SpaceX, inclusive of development costs incurred by NASA.

Despite the larger payments to Boeing, the company could very well lose money on Starliner. The higher cost to NASA from Boeing is due almost entirely because the agency was absorbing more of its initial development cost. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule had already been flying cargo missions to ISS when these manned contracts were awarded. SpaceX merely had to upgrade its manned capsule. Boeing had to design and build it from scratch. Moreover, the contracts were fixed price, which means Boeing had to absorb more than a half billion in additional costs when it had to refly the unmanned demo flight of Starliner.

Finally, because of the delays, Boeing won less NASA business. It also has gotten none of the private commercial manned flights that are going on right now. Those contracts went to SpaceX, including all the profits. Whether Boeing can eventually win some private contracts down the road is unknown. It will certainly have to lower its price to compete with SpaceX.

Starliner manned launch delayed until 2023

NASA and Boeing yesterday announced that the first manned flight of a Starliner capsule has been delayed again, and will not occur before February 2023, at the earliest.

This delay is in order to fix the various thruster problems that occurred in the second unmanned demo flight in May 2021, dubbed OFT-2.

Nappi said some “debris-related conditions” likely caused those thrusters to shut down, but later noted that is their best estimate since the OMAC thrusters are in a service module that burns up on reentry and is not recovered. “We do not know where the debris may have come from,” he said. “The bottom line is that it looks to be the leading root cause, and we’ve eliminated that by looking at the CFT vehicle and making sure that there’s absolutely no debris in the system.”

Several reaction control thrusters also shut down during the mission, which Nappi said was likely due to low inlet pressures and can be addressed with a “tweak in timing and tolerances” in software. High pressures in a thermal control loop noticed in the mission were linked to filters that engineers determined are not needed and can be removed. A guidance system on the spacecraft called VESTA worked well but generated more data than the flight software could handle, requiring changes to the software. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words indicate once again that there are quality control problems at Boeing. For any “debris” to get into the thrusters without notice means someone at some point wasn’t doing things right.

SpaceX and Boeing got contracts to fly humans on their commercial capsules at the same time, in 2014. SpaceX began those flights in 2020, about three years behind schedule, mostly due to NASA-imposed delays. Boeing has still not flown, with almost all its delays resulting from company failures, almost all of which were uncovered during the two unmanned demo flights in 2019 and 2022.

Hopefully, the company will finally get the last kinks from the system before next year’s flight. In the meantime its inability to get this job done on time has meant it has lost a lot of commercial business, all of which went to SpaceX.

SLS arrives at launchpad

The Space Launch System rocket (SLS) that will fly on NASA’s first test launch of this rocket on August 29, 2022 has finally arrived at its launchpad, seven years late and about $20 billion overbudget.

In the coming days, engineers and technicians will configure systems at the pad for launch, which is currently targeted for no earlier than Aug. 29 at 8:33 a.m. (two hour launch window). Teams have worked to refine operations and procedures and have incorporated lessons learned from the wet dress rehearsal test campaign and have updated the launch timeline accordingly.

The rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building took ten hours.

August 15, 2022 Quick space links

From Jay, BtB’s stringer:

Boeing adds another $93 million charge against earnings for Starliner manned capsule

Capitalism in space: Boeing officials revealed yesterday that they have been forced to add another $93 million charge against earnings for its much delayed Starliner manned capsule the company is building.

This is on top of $410 million in the fourth quarter of 2019 and another $185 million in the third quarter of 2021. All together, Boeing has had to cover $688 million in cost growth.

At the moment the first manned launch is tentatively scheduled to occur before the end of this year, with NASA supposedly announcing a firm date before the end of July. This new charge however suggests that the manned launch will not happen until ’23.

Boeing has not simply lost $688 million. It also has lost potential business because of the delays, both from NASA and private citizens. Instead, that business went to SpaceX.

Virgin Galactic is replacing its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship

Virgin Galactic yesterday announced that it has hired Aurora, a Boeing subsidiary, to build two new mother ships to to replace WhiteKnightTwo and launch its SpaceShipTwo suborbital space planes.

Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer Michael Colglazier said: “Our next generation motherships are integral to scaling our operations. They will be faster to produce, easier to maintain and will allow us to fly substantially more missions each year. Supported by the scale and strength of Boeing, Aurora is the ideal manufacturing partner for us as we build our fleet to support 400 flights per year at Spaceport America.” [emphasis mine]

The press release claims the first new mother ship will begin operations in 2025.

Forgive me if I am very very skeptical. The highlighted words tell us a lot about this company. First, we now have confirmation that the company has had problems maintaining WhiteKnightTwo. This fact was strongly implied when all planned flights in ’21 and ’22 were cancelled following that first passenger flight in July ’21 in order to do a full maintenance refit of WhiteKnightTwo. This press release tells us that the company’s management has recognized that WhiteKnightTwo cannot be maintained much longer.

Second, the company continues to overhype its future, even without Richard Branson. The chances of it flying 400 times per year, anytime in the near future, is so slim as to be non-existent.

Third, the need to hire an outside company to build these new mother ships also suggests that Virgin Galactic no longer has the capability of doing it itself.

Right now the company’s stock is selling for about $7 per share, well below its initial price of about $12. Expect it to fall again.

NASA shuffles crew for first Starliner manned mission

In a press release yesterday, NASA announced the two-person crew that will fly on the first manned mission of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to ISS.

[C]ommander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, whom NASA assigned to the prime crew in October 2020, will join NASA astronaut Suni Williams, who will serve as pilot. Williams previously served as the backup test pilot for CFT [crew test flight] while assigned as commander of NASA’s Boeing Starliner-1 mission, Starliner’s first post-certification mission. As CFT pilot, Williams takes the place of NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, originally assigned to the mission in 2018. NASA reassigned Mann to the agency’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission in 2021.

The crew for this flight, delayed now more than two years, has changed several times. In 2020 astronaut Chris Ferguson dropped out for personal reasons. Then NASA listed the crew as Wilmore, Mike Finke, and Nicole Mann, with Williams then assigned to Starliner’s next mission, its first long term flight to ISS.

With this change, the crew has been reduced to two, and Finke is now listed as a backup should something further change with the prime crew.

The press release made no mention of an actual launch date, though it did say that Boeing and NASA are still reviewing the data from Starliner’s unmanned demo mission:

The Starliner team is in the process of delivering the initial test flight data to NASA and jointly determining forward work ahead of a crewed flight. These engineering and program reviews are expected to continue for several weeks, culminating in a launch schedule assessment at the end of July, based upon spacecraft readiness, space station scheduling needs, and Eastern Range availability.

The goal had been to fly before the end of this year. It appears NASA and Boeing are still pushing to meet that goal.

First look at the new Starliner flight suit being made by Dover

It appears that the flight suit that the company ILC Dover is making for Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule has been unveiled not by the company but as part of an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Centers’ visitor complex.

Boeing has also signed contracts with two companies to provide two different flight suits.

Announced late last month, Boeing’s choice of ILC Dover’s AES came somewhat out of the blue. The aerospace company had previously selected another spacesuit manufacturer, the David Clark Company, to provide pressure garments for astronauts launching and landing on its CST-100 Starliner capsules.

An example of the David Clark suit, which was first revealed in 2017, has already flown twice to space on Boeing’s two orbital flight tests. Although astronauts have yet to fly on the Starliner, an anthropometric test device (instrumented mannequin) named “Rosie the Rocketeer” was dressed in the suit for the trial missions.

Boeing’s next and, as currently planned, final Starliner test flight will carry a crew, who will also wear the David Clark suit, according to a statement released by the company. The ILC AES will be introduced once Boeing begins flying astronauts on NASA-contracted missions to and from the International Space Station in 2023.

“In the spirit of commercial human spaceflight, we made the decision to bring an additional Starliner spacesuit supplier online to introduce additional redundancy, flexibility and competition for crew accommodations on future flights to low-Earth orbit destinations. We expect to introduce the new suits during operational missions, and are pleased to see the market opening up and allowing more options for Boeing as well as our government and commercial customers,” read the company’s statement.

In my opinion, the graphics at the link of both suits show them both to appear more comfortable and better looking than SpaceX’s Dragon flight suits. That opinion however is just a question of taste and style, and has nothing to do with the suits’ operation or use.

SpaceX wins more NASA manned flights to ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA has now announced that it is buying five additional manned missions to ISS from SpaceX, beginning in ’26.

This new contract is in addition to a February ’22 NASA award that purchased three more Dragon flights.

After a thorough review of the long-term capabilities and responses from American industry, NASA’s assessment is that the SpaceX crew transportation system is the only one currently certified to maintain crewed flight to the space station while helping to ensure redundant and backup capabilities through 2030.

The current sole source modification does not preclude NASA from seeking additional contract modifications in the future for additional transportation services as needed.

The press release repeatedly makes it clear that NASA very much wishes to buy tickets on Boeing’s Starliner, but until it is declared operational it must give its business to SpaceX. Once Starliner begins flying, NASA will then buy seats on it and alternate between the two companies. Until then however this new SpaceX contract guarantees NASA enough flight capacity to keep ISS occupied, even if Starliner gets further delayed.

Regardless, Boeing has once again lost business to SpaceX because its Starliner capsule is not yet ready. In the long run this contract means fewer total flights for Boeing to ISS, which means less profits.

Boeing picks company to manufacture flight suits for passengers on Starliner

Dover's spacesuits
ILC Dover’s spacesuits.

Capitalism in space: On May 26th ILC Dover announced it has been chosen by Boeing as one of two companies to manufacture flight suits for passengers on Starliner.

The Boeing AES [Ascent/Entry Suit] is based off ILC Dover’s commercial Launch, Entry, and Abort suit, SOL™. ILC Dover worked with Boeing to tailor SOL for the Starliner spacecraft to provide protection for astronauts during the most critical phases of spaceflight, including launch, docking, re-entry and landing. With over 50 years of spacesuit experience, the AES suit was designed to provide maximum mobility to operate, enter and exit the spacecraft, as well as provide protection for astronauts in case of an emergency.

The black spacesuit on the left in the picture is Dover’s SOL suit, which it is adapting for Boeing. The white suit is the spacewalk suit it has made for NASA for use on ISS, which I also think is the same spacesuit that has for now almost a decade had repeated problems with water leaking into the helmet.

In other words, big space Boeing has hired another big space company to build its Starliner flight suits. I hope ILC Dover does a better job with the AES suit then it has with its EVA suit.

NASA blesses Starliner as ready for manned missions

Capitalism in space: In the post flight press conference on May 25th, NASA officials gave their official endorsement of Boeing’s manned capsule Starliner, making it clear they are ready to approve it for manned missions.

Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, was to the point:

“Putting the vehicle through its paces on this flight is really the only way to prepare us for the crewed flight test,” Stich said. “Once we work through all the data, we’ll be ready to fly crew on this vehicle.”

The “data” however includes two failed orbital thrusters on the capsule’s service module, and two failed attitude control thrusters on the capsule itself. While the capsule’s thrusters can be taken apart for analysis, because the service module is not recovered, burning up over the ocean, Boeing will have to try to figure out the cause of its thruster failures from the data and experimentation with a not-yet flown service module.

Even so, it appears NASA will not require Boeing to do another unmanned test flight. The capsule proved during the unmanned demo flight that it has more than ample redundancy in these thrusters, should some fail on a manned flight.

The plan right now is to get that next manned flight off by the end of the year, though it could slip into ’23 should it become difficult to pin down and fix the thruster issues.

Starliner successfully lands in New Mexico

Starliner on its way down

Capitalism in space: Boeing today successfully completed the safe landing of Starliner from an unmanned demo mission to ISS, making it the only American capsule to touchdown on the ground using parachutes. This was the second Starliner to do so, though the first demo mission was cut short just after reaching orbit.

The screen capture to the right comes from the live stream, about two minutes before touchdown. You can see the airbags deployed under the capsule, which inflated just after the heat shield was jettisoned.

The capsule landed only 0.3 miles from its target, an excellent result. Crews are now heading to the capsule at White Sands to carefully check it out, to make sure no hazardous fuel leaks pose a threat to those ground crews.

I must complement Boeing (and NASA) on providing very professional coverage. It has often been painful in recent years to watch any NASA broadcast because of the breathless propaganda the agency has somehow thought it needed to do. In this case however the announcers and the broadcast were calm, thoughtful, and very informative, focused not on emotion but on reporting what was actually happening. Kudos to Boeing!
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Watch Starliner’s return to Earth

The astronauts on ISS closed the hatch yesterday on Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule in preparation for its return to Earth today, with a planned landing at White Sands, New Mexico, at 6:49 pm (Eastern).

I have embedded NASA’s live stream below. The undocking at 2:36 pm (Eastern), with the live stream beginning at 2:30 pm (Eastern). After the capsule separates and ends joint operations with ISS the live stream will break off until 5:45 pm (Eastern), when it will resume to cover the landing.
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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.

Starliner reaches proper orbit despite thruster problems

Unbelievable: During the post-launch press conference last night Boeing officials revealed that, though the final burn to get Boeing’s Starliner capsule into orbit using its own thrusters succeeded, the thrusters did not function as planned.

Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi said a Starliner thruster failed after firing for one second as the spacecraft made a burn to enter orbit after separating from its Atlas V launch vehicle. The flight software switched to a second thruster, which fired for 25 seconds before shutting down prematurely. A third thruster took over and completed the firing, Nappi said.

The thrusters were made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which also made the valves that did not work in the previous launch attempt in the summer of 2021. Whether the two problems are related is not known at this time.

A NASA official also noted that a cooling unit on the spacecraft operated “sluggishly during ascent,” but began working correctly once in orbit.

Right now NASA and Boeing are planning to proceed with the docking on ISS tonight at 7:10 pm (Eastern). It appears that though two thrusters have failed, they have ten more thrusters that can be used for further maneuvers throughout the mission. Furthermore, these thrusters are not used during the actual rendezvous and docking.

The live stream of the docking goes live at 3:30 pm (Eastern), and is embedded below. Until then enjoy NASA propaganda, some of it might be of interest.

Update: NASA has cut off coverage of the docking on the channel I had embedded previously. I have now embedded an active live feed.

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ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket successfully launches Starliner into orbit

Atlas-5 immediately after lift-off
Screen capture just after lift-off

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket today successfully launched Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule into orbit on its second attempt to complete an unmanned demo mission to ISS.

The capsule having been deployed by the rocket then followed with a final burn using the capsule’s own engines to get into its proper orbit for rendezvous with ISS tomorrow at 7:10 pm (Eastern). It was during this rendezvous period that Starliner had its problems in the first demo mission in December 2019 that caused the mission to be aborted prior to docking. Hopefully those software issues have been solved and all will go well through tomorrow.

It is interesting to compare the operation and equipment of Boeing/ULA vs SpaceX. While SpaceX has aimed for a sleek look, Boeing/ULA both retain the industrial feel of past rocketry. Neither is wrong, but the difference highlights the consequences of having competing operations. You get variety.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

21 SpaceX
15 China
7 Russia
3 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 30 to 15 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 30 to 25.

Watching Boeing’s Starliner launch tonight

At 6:54 pm (Eastern) tonight a ULA Atlas-5 rocket will launch Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule on its second attempt to complete an unmanned demo mission to ISS.

NASA’s live coverage will begin at 6 pm on NASA-TV. I have embedded the youtube channel of this live stream below the fold. At the moment the station is broadcasting its regular NASA propaganda (some of which is actually informative). The launch’s actual coverage will begin at 6 pm (Eastern), and continue until the spacecraft is successfully inserted into orbit. Further coverage of the flight, including docking with ISS, will be as follows:

9 pm (Eastern) – Post launch press conference (time subject to change).

May 20
3:30 pm (Eastern) – Coverage begins of the rendezvous and docking to ISS, with the actual docking scheduled for 7:10 pm (Eastern).

May 21
11:30 am (Eastern) – Coverage of the opening of Starliner’s hatch, scheduled for 11:45 am (Eastern).

Boeing’s first attempt to complete this mission in December 2019 was forced to return to Earth before docking with ISS because of numerous software issues. Then, an attempt to launch again in August 2021 was scrubbed because numerous valves in the capsule’s service module failed to operate properly during the countdown. The company had to return the capsule to the factory to replace that service module as well as make some changes to the valves to make today’s launch possible.

For Boeing, these delays and fixes have cost the company a lot of money, since its contract with NASA is fixed price. This second demo mission will cost Boeing about $400 million, but even worse, the delays meant that SpaceX got some of the business with NASA and other private customers that it might have gotten had Starliner been operational.

Update: NASA has cut off coverage of the docking on the channel I had embedded previously. I have now embedded an active live feed.

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NASA corrupt safety panel once again blathers on

The corrupt safety panel at NASA that spent years slowing down SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule development with sometimes absurd demands, including delays caused simply because of paperwork, is now demanding that NASA should slow its approval of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, even if its unmanned demo mission next week succeeds completely.

This quote from the article best illustrates this safety panel’s do-nothing bureaucratic view of the world:

A further concern is that Starliner uses the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to get to orbit, but Atlas Vs are being phased out. ULA is building a new rocket, Vulcan, that could see its first launch late this year, but must go through a “human-rating” certification process that [panel member David] West said “could take years” for Starliner. [emphasis mine]

Every demand of this panel for years has demanded years of delays, with many having nothing to do with technical safety — the panel’s original purpose — but with management questions and the panel’s own overblown opinion of itself. Worse, some of its demands never made sense, such as its objection to SpaceX’s launch procedures where it fueled the rocket after the astronauts got on board. This quote from an earlier post about the panel’s recent inappropriate attempt to insert itself into NASA’s policy decisions sums things up well, and provides links to previous failures of the panel:

This panel continues to demonstrate its corrupt and power-hungry attitude about how the U.S. should explore space. For years it did whatever it could to stymie NASA’s efforts to transfer ownership to the private sector, putting up false barriers to the launch of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule that made no sense and were really designed to keep all control within the government bureaucracy.

It is now targeting Boeing, though amazingly it is only doing it after many of Starliner’s technical problems have been uncovered. The safety panel was a complete failure in spotting the company’s problems early on, several years ago, when it might have saved everyone a lot of time and money. Instead, it now acts like an annoying back seat driver, only kibitzing about things that went wrong long after everyone else has done the work.

I have been saying for years that it is time to shut this panel down. It is now long past time to do so. The time and money saved might actually improve safety far more than the panel ever has.

Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne fight over cause of Starliner valve problem

In a Reuters story today, it was revealed that Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne are in a fight over the cause of Starliner valve problem, where thirteen valves failed to work and caused the scrub of a launch attempt last summer, delaying almost a year to next week.

A team of Boeing and NASA engineers is in general agreement that the cause of the stuck valves involves a chemical reaction between propellant, aluminum materials and the intrusion of moisture from Starliner’s humid Florida launch site.

Aerojet engineers and lawyers see it differently, blaming a cleaning chemical that Boeing has used in ground tests, two of the sources said.

It appears that Aerojet is attempting to put the blame on Boeing because it might be liable for the cost of redesigning the valves, as well as other costs associated with the delays since last year.

The article also reveals that the valves being used in the Starliner capsule to be launched next week have only a temporary fix for the problem, and that Boeing intends to redesign them to prevent the problem in the future.

All in all, this whole fiasco does not speak well for either Boeing or Aerojet. It remains completely inexplicable for any spacecraft to be built with this kind of valve problem, now, after six decades of launches from wet and humid Florida. The problem reeks of bad design or poor quality control procedures by both companies.

The article further confirms these quality control problems by this tidbit in its last paragraph:

In 2017, Starliner had an accident during a ground test that forced the president of a different subcontractor to have his leg medically amputated. The subcontractor sued, and Boeing subsequently settled the case.

That this accident has been kept out of the news is somewhat shocking. For it to happen at all reveals a lot about the sloppy way Boeing operates these days.

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