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.

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!
» Read more

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.
» Read more

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.

» Read more

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
3 ULA

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.

» Read more

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.

ULA begins stacking Atlas-5 rocket that will launch Starliner on demo mission

Capitalism in space: ULA has begin assembling the Atlas-5 rocket it will use in May to launch Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule on its second unmanned demo mission.

The article provides a detailed description of the status of both the rocket and the capsule, including this update on the valve issues that caused the August ’21 launch of this second demo mission to be scrubbed:

Engineers believe the valve components likely corroded from the interaction of nitrogen tetroxide propellant with moisture that seeped into the thrusters on the spacecraft’s service module, then permeated a Teflon seal inside the valve itself.

Technicians removed the service module from the Starliner’s crew module in January for shipment to a test facility in New Mexico, where teams are performing tests to better understand the valve problem. The OFT-2 [in May] mission will fly with a new service module, one originally assigned to the first Starliner mission with astronauts. Teams inside Boeing’s Starliner hangar mated the crew module with the new service module March 12. Filling of the service module with propellant is expected to occur this month, before the spacecraft rolls over to ULA’s rocket integration building for stacking atop the Atlas 5.

Boeing said the Starliner team designed a new purging system to help prevent moisture from getting into the valves during the upcoming launch campaign while the spacecraft is in the factory and at ULA’s launch site.

Boeing’s engineering failures with Starliner have been expensive to the company. Not only has Boeing had to pay out of its own pocket an extra $410 million for this second demo flight, it has had to write off the cost of that first service module. Furthermore, not being operational has probably meant it has lost business to SpaceX and its Dragon capsules. For example, when Axiom first announced it was going to fly commercial tourist flights in 2018, it was expected the company would use both Dragon and Starliner capsules. That might still happen, but at least for the first few years of operations all of Axiom’s business has gone to SpaceX. NASA has also had to throw all its manned flights to SpaceX for the next few years, some of which was originally aimed at Boeing.

Should this second demo flight succeed, however, the company will finally be in a position to launch passengers on Starliner and thus make money from the capsule.

Boeing and NASA set May 19th for second Starliner unmanned demo launch

NASA yesterday announced May 19th as the new launch date for Boeing’s second attempt to complete the first unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS.

The uncrewed mission will test the end-to-end capabilities of the Starliner spacecraft and Atlas V rocket from launch to docking and return to Earth at one of five designated landing zones in the western United States. Following a successful completion of the OFT-2 mission, NASA and Boeing will determine a launch window for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT), Starliner’s first flight with astronauts aboard.

The first unmanned demo flight in December 2019 failed to dock with ISS and had to be cut short due to serious software issues. The launch of the second unmanned demo flight was scrubbed mere hours before launch in August of 2021 due to serious valve issues.

Thus, Boeing’s manned capsule is more than two years behind schedule. Not only has Boeing had to pay more than $400 million for a second demo mission, the delays have caused a lot of business with NASA and with tourists to instead go to SpaceX. Hopefully, the company has finally fixed all issues and will succeed and begin manned operations later this year.

Boeing and NASA still aiming for a May launch of unmanned Starliner test demo

Capitalism in space: Boeing and NASA are still targeting a May launch of Starliner’s unmanned test demo flight to ISS, delayed since August because of a valve issue in the service module.

Though they think they have identified and fixed that sticky valve problem, they have also decided to replace the service module for the demo flight, using the module originally planned for the first manned flight that will follow.

Boeing switches Starliner service modules for unmanned demo flight

According to a NASA press release today, Boeing has decided to swap Starliner service modules for the capsule’s first two missions, using the service module intended for the first manned flight on the unmanned demo flight, and assigning the service module for the unmanned demo flight — which had the valve issue — to the first manned flight.

The launch schedule for these two flights is now targeting May for the unmanned demo flight and August for the first manned Starliner demo mission.

Ongoing investigation efforts continue to validate the most probable cause to be related to oxidizer and moisture interactions. NASA and Boeing will continue the analysis and testing of the initial service module on which the issue was identified leading up to launch of the uncrewed OFT-2 mission in August 2021.

In other words, though they are claiming that they have figured out the sticky valve problem in that service module, it is also quite likely that it will not be used in August 2021. I suspect they will eventually put it aside and use another service module for the manned mission, and have only said now that they will use it on the manned mission for PR reasons. It appears they are confident the valve issue is solved for other service modules, but are not yet satisfied this troublesome service module is trustworthy.

The May-August schedule is tight, but doable, assuming the May unmanned flight goes well. If the August manned demo mission also goes well, Boeing will finally be able to begin selling seats on its Starliner capsule, though I would not be surprised if it makes no sales to anyone but NASA for the next few years. Considering its problem-filled development, private users are going to be reluctant to use this capsule until it establishes a successful track record.

NASA buys more Dragon manned flights

Capitalism in space: To give it some coverage because of continuing delays in Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule, NASA announced yesterday that it has awarded SpaceX contracts for three more manned Dragon manned flights to ISS.

NASA issued a contract notification announcing its plans to issue a sole-source award to SpaceX for three missions. Those missions would be in addition to the six “post-certification missions,” or PCMs, that SpaceX won as part of its $2.6 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract in 2014. The announcement did not state the price of those three new missions.

This is money that would have gone to Boeing, if it had gotten its act together and gotten Starliner flying on schedule. Instead, SpaceX is making the profits.

There has been no updates from Boeing since October on the valve issue that now stalls Starliner. While Boeing claims it is aiming for an unmanned demo flight to ISS in early ’22, this remains entirely speculative at this moment.

Starliner delays have cost Boeing another $185 million

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced that it has had to taken another $185 million charge out of its earnings, in addition to the $410 million previously deducted, in order to cover the problems and delays in developing its Starliner manned capsule.

When Boeing took the original earnings charge, it said it did so because it committed to redo the uncrewed flight test at no expense to NASA, a point a Boeing executive reaffirmed at the Oct. 19 briefing. “There’s no additional charges that will be going to the government for this. This is something that The Boeing Company will make sure we’ve got covered as we get this vehicle prepared,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program.

These costs are beginning to pile up. Boeing has got to get this capsule fixed and flying, not only to begin bringing in some income but to show the world that it can do this right.

Sierra Space teams up with Blue Origin to build its Life space station

Proposed Orbital Reef space station

Capitalism in space: Sierra Space and Blue Origin today announced [pdf] that they are forming a consortium of space companies to build a space station they dub Orbital Reef. From the press release:

The Orbital Reef team of experts brings proven capabilities and new visions to provide key elements and services, including unique experience from building and operating the International Space Station:

  • Blue Origin – Utility systems, large-diameter core modules, and reusable heavy-lift New Glenn launch system.
  • Sierra Space – Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) module, node module, and runway-landing Dream Chaser spaceplane for crew and cargo transportation, capable of landing on runways worldwide.
  • Boeing – Science module, station operations, maintenance engineering, and Starliner crew spacecraft.
  • Redwire Space – Microgravity research, development, and manufacturing; payload operations and deployable structures.
  • Genesis Engineering Solutions – Single Person Spacecraft for routine operations and tourist excursions.
  • Arizona State University – Leads a global consortium of universities providing research advisory services and public outreach.

I suspect that this deal is actually telling us that Jeff Bezos is spreading some of his Blue Origin money to help finance Sierra Space’s work. The deal also appears to be an effort to generate work for Blue Origin’s not-yet-launched New Glenn rocket and Boeing’s not-yet launched Starliner capsule.

The release says nothing about target dates, but the overview [pdf] on the Orbital Reef website says they are aiming for the second half of this decade.

While the success of such a project can only increase the competition and lower the cost to orbit, thus making the settlement of space more likely, this announcement reeks of the same kind of high-minded promises that came with Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander: Big plans by the best and most established space companies, with little firm commitment by these companies to actually build anything.

Compared to the Blue Moon lunar lander project, however, this project has one very significant difference that could make it real. Orbital Reef is not being touted in order to win a government contract. It is being touted as a commercial station for private customers. Such a project will require these companies to either invest their own money, or obtain outside investment capital, to build it. To make money they can’t sit and wait for their customers to pay for it, since customers never do that (except the government). They need to first build it.

Meanwhile, the BE-4 engine is not yet flight worthy, so that Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket remains no closer to launch, even though it is now approaching two years behind schedule.

Boeing to take Starliner apart, remove two valves

Boeing has decided to take apart the Starliner capsule intended for its second unmanned demo flight to ISS to do a close inspection of two of the troublesome valves that caused the launch in August to be scrubbed.

The current guess at what caused the valve issue involves moisture that accumulated near some of the valves’ Teflon seal. But without any clear culprit, the company now plans to ship two of the valves to a NASA center in Huntsville, Ala., for a forensic CT scan, using machines similar the ones used on humans to detect diseases.

This action now means that the next launch attempt will likely be delayed until the middle of ’22.

The delay is costing Boeing money, not NASA, as the contract is fixed price and Boeing will not get paid additional money until it meets its next milestone, which is a successful demo flight to ISS.

Update on Boeing’s investigation into Starliner valve issue

NASA yesterday issued an update on Boeing’s investigation into Starliner valve issue, noting that progress is being made.

Boeing has demonstrated success in valve functionality using localized heating and electrical charging techniques. Troubleshooting on the pad, at the launch complex, and inside the Starliner production factory at Kennedy Space Center has resulted in movement of all but one of the original stuck valves. That valve has not been moved intentionally to preserve forensics for direct root cause analysis.

Most items on the fault tree have been dispositioned by the team including causes related to avionics, flight software and wiring. Boeing has identified a most probable cause related to oxidizer and moisture interactions, and although some verification work remains underway, our confidence is high enough that we are commencing corrective and preventive actions. Additional spacecraft and component testing will be conducted in the coming weeks to further explore contributing factors and necessary system remediation before flight.

…Boeing has identified several paths forward depending on the outcome of the testing to ultimately resolve the issue and prevent it from happening on future flights. These options could range from minor refurbishment of the current service module components to using another service module already in production. [emphasis mine]

The announcement also confirmed that the next launch attempt of the unmanned demo mission is now being targeted for “the first half of 2022, pending hardware readiness, the rocket manifest, and space station availability.”

The highlighted words raise a very serious question. How is it possible for “oxidizer and moisture interactions” to cause this problem now on Starliner, when the environmental conditions at Cape Canaveral for spacecraft have been understood for better than sixty years? Though this problem might have uncovered a previously undetected fundamental engineering issue related to valves, I am very skeptical. It seems more likely that some quality control issue occurred during this capsule’s assembly. That they are considering using a different Starliner capsule for the demo flight strongly confirms this, suggesting again that the valve issue is not systemic to all valves but is specifically linked to the assembly of this capsule.

If this speculation is correct, it suggests there are some some very disturbing quality control problems in Boeing’s Starliner design and assembly processes. First they missed about sixty software issues that forced the premature landing of the capsule in the first demo flight, issues that should have been fixed during design and construction. Now it appears they have discovered assembly problems with the capsule’s valves, and only did so mere hours before launch.

Boeing has got to get these issues fixed, or it is going to have a serious public relations problem garnering private customers outside NASA once Starliner begins commercial flights.

NASA shifts Starliner crew to Dragon to get them in space

NASA announced yesterday that it is is changing the launch assignments of two astronauts from Boeing’s long delayed Starliner capsule to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, thus allowing them to get into space sooner.

Astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada were supposed to be among the first human passengers on Starliner during its first crewed flights in the coming years. Now, they’ll fly together on SpaceX’s fifth crewed mission to the International Space Station, which is slated to take place in the fall of 2022.

Both had been assigned to Starliner in 2018, but the delays at Boeing have left them stranded on the ground while others are flying. Worse, it is now unclear when Starliner will launch, as Boeing has not yet resolved the serious valve issue that scrubbed the launch of Starliner’s second unmanned demo mission in August.

Starliner unmanned demo flight likely delayed until ’22

Capitalism in space: The second Starliner unmanned demo flight, repeatedly delayed throughout ’21 due to scheduling and technical problems, is now likely to be delayed until next year.

Apparently, Boeing engineers have been unable to figure out why 13 of 64 valves on Starliner failed to function properly just hours before the last planned launch, causing the launch to be scrubbed.

The quality control systems at Boeing during this entire program have not shined. The capsule is now years behind schedule, and has been dogged by design and construction flaws — from software to parachutes to valves — that in the 21st century should not be problems any longer in building a manned spacecraft.

Like SpaceX and its Dragon capsule, Boeing owns Starliner and will be able to offer private citizens and companies flights on it once it is operational. These failures, however, will not be good for that future business. They make this spacecraft a far less appealing product when compared to the high quality of the engineering at SpaceX. Why would anyone risk their life on Starliner when they can buy a ticket on the apparently much more reliable Dragon?

In other words, Boeing has been doing terrible harm to its brand name with these problems. It needs to get them fixed, and fast.

Boeing to return Starliner to factory

Capitalism in space: According to a Wall Street Journal story today, Boeing and NASA have decided to remove the Starliner capsule from the Atlas-5 rocket and return it to Boeing’s factory in order to do a more thorough inverstigation into the capsule’s failing valves.

This decision means that the launch of the second unmanned demo test flight of Starliner will not occur in August, and will likely be delayed several more months. NASA and Boeing just held a press conference in which they made this decision official. During that conference they said they think the moist environment at Kennedy might have caused corrosion in the valves, which caused them to stick.

I once again wonder if Boeing has any quality control systems at all. For such a serious problem — the failure of 13 valves out of 24 — to suddenly pop up just hours before launch, when they have been developing this capsule for years, and even had an extra year and a half to check the capsule out after the failures during the first unmanned demo flight in December 2019, is somewhat astonishing, and very disturbing.

Others will argue that problems like this can always appear unexpectedly in space hardware. I say hogwash. Boeing is not inventing something new with Starliner. This is a capsule, using heritage engineering first invented in the late 1950s. It should not be so hard to get this right.

Starliner launch scrub: 13 of 24 of the capsule’s propulsion valves failed to work

It now appears that the launch scrub last week of Boeing’s Starliner second unmanned demo flight to ISS occurred because thirteen valves in the capsule’s propulsion valves all failed to open during prelaunch testing.

Over the weekend, the team made “positive progress,” a spokesperson said Monday, allowing the company to continue to plan for a launch this month. The company has found “no signs of damage or external corrosion,” Boeing said in a statement Monday. “Test teams are now applying mechanical, electrical and thermal techniques to prompt the valves open.” As a result, more than half of the valves “are now operating as designed,” it said, and work would continue on the others “in the days ahead.”

In a blog post, NASA said that “if all valve functionality can be restored and root cause identified, NASA will work with Boeing to determine a path to flight for the important uncrewed mission to the space station.” The earliest opportunity would come in mid-August, it said.

But Boeing still does not know what caused the valves to remain closed when they needed to be in the open position, and it is unclear how long determining that would take. As a result, some in the aerospace industry are skeptical the company could launch this month.

They have managed to get seven of those thirteen valves working again.

That 13 of 24 failed to function correct strongly suggests the problem isn’t random but is instead a fundamental design problem that needs to be identified prior to launch.

That such a problem has only been discovered now, during the launch countdown, does not reflect well on Boeing or its capsule. That the problem was not noticed in the year and a half delay caused by the software problems during the first unmanned demo flight in December 2019 makes this problem even more disturbing.

In fact, it is downright shocking. It makes one wonder about Boeing’s entire operation, considering the disastrous problems the company has also had with its commercial and military airplane projects in recent years. Does the company have no quality control systems in place, at all?

I truly hope Boeing gets this fixed and Starliner flying, but right now they need to fly a number of times, including reusing a capsule a few times, before I’d recommend anyone buying a ticket.

Starliner launch scrubbed; no launch date yet set

For reasons that have not yet been revealed, ULA scrubbed today’s unmanned demo test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule just prior to launch, rescheduling the launch for tomorrow.

The launch tomorrow wiill occur at 12:57 am (Eastern).

UPDATE: It appears the scrub occurred because of a valve issue in the propulsion system of Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

“During pre-launch preparations for the uncrewed test flight of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, Boeing engineers monitoring the health and status of the vehicle detected unexpected valve position indications in the propulsion system,” the company said in a statement. “The issue was initially detected during check outs following yesterday’s electrical storms in the region of Kennedy Space Center.”

…The propulsion system valves in question are inside the Starliner’s service module, which has an array of rocket thrusters designed to propel the spacecraft away from its launcher during an in-flight emergency. Other thrusters on the service module are used for in-orbit maneuvers and spacecraft pointing control.

Boeing cannot afford more failures during this second demo flight. The company has been plagued with numerous debilitating technical failures during the past four years, from Starliner to its airlines. Right now the failure to get Starliner operational is losing them business in the emerging orbital tourist market. They need to get it working, and working reliably.

UPDATE: They have decided to cancel the launch plans for tomorrow, to roll the rocket back into the assembly building so they can do more tests on the capsule’s service module where the troublesome valves are.

Nauka engines fire unexpectedly after docking; forces cancellation of Starliner launch

The soap opera of the Nauka module to ISS became even more dramatic today when its engines fired unexpectedly after its docking, causing the station to shift in orbit and forcing Russian mission controllers to shut it down and fire other engines to return the station to its proper orbit.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency attributed the issue to Nauka’s engines having to work with residual fuel in the craft, TASS news agency reported. “The process of transferring the Nauka module from flight mode to ‘docked with ISS’ mode is underway. Work is being carried out on the remaining fuel in the module,” Roscosmos was cited by TASS as saying.

It appears that because they needed to improvise the rendezvous using different engines, there is more fuel left over in Nauka than expected once it docked, and this needs to be vented safely. Somehow, instead of venting the module ignited the engines.

NASA has subsequently postponed tomorrow’s second unmanned demo launch of Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule until the agency has a clear understanding of the issue and has confirmed that Nauka’s presence is not a serious safety issue.

Boeing and NASA set July 30th for 2nd unmanned Starliner demo mission

Capitalism in space: Boeing and NASA today announced that they have now scheduled the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS for July 30th.

In separate statements, the agency and the company said they were planning to launch the Starliner on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 at 2:53 p.m. Eastern July 30 on the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission. A launch that day would allow the spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station on the evening of July 31.

The new launch date comes after NASA and Boeing completed an “integrated mission dress rehearsal” for the mission using a simulator at a Boeing facility in Houston. The five-day simulation covered activities starting 26 hours before launch and going through landing, including docking and undocking from the station.

Both Boeing and NASA are still hopeful that the first manned flight of Starliner can still take place before the end of this year. Whether it does or not will largely depend on how well things go on this unmanned demo flight.

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