The Boeing Commercial Crew Starliner: Third time’s charm

Proving that the third time can be a charm, the Boeing Commercial Crew Starliner, rose into the evening sky over Florida in a perfect launch on May 19. A previous flight, 29 months before, had to be cut short because of a software problem. A second launch attempt, which would have happened in August 2021, had to be scrubbed because the propellent valves failed to open. The spacecraft went into a good orbit despite the failure of two of its thrusters.

A little more than a day later, the Starliner, after working through some minor issues, rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station (ISS). The successful maneuver was a triumph for the repeatedly delayed and over-budget spacecraft, another step forward for it becoming the second commercial crew vehicle capable of taking astronauts to and from the ISS.

Among the cargo that Starliner carried to the ISS was a full-scale mannequin with sensors and recording devices dubbed “Rosie the Rocketeer” and a “zero gravity indicator” doll named “Jedediah Kerman.” The data gathered by “Rosie” will help Boeing plan the next test flight, this time with astronauts, due to happen later in 2022. Most of the rest of the 500 pounds of cargo consisted of food and other provisions for the astronauts on the orbiting laboratory.

With Starliner some years late and millions of dollars over budget, Boeing is clearly having some trouble adjusting to the brave new world of fixed-price contracts. Under the traditional cost-plus contracts that NASA used to acquire space hardware, the space agency would cover any cost overruns. Now, companies like Boeing have to eat any extra costs and try to make them up in the long term.

Ars Technica reported that during an Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel meeting former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said, “I think if they look back on it, they wouldn’t do it again” of the Boeing and Commercial Crew. Nevertheless, both Garver and former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised Boeing for taking a leap of faith in competing for the commercial crew contract.

Additionally, both Bolden and Garver suggest that Boeing’s entry into the Commercial Crew competition likely saved the program. When the Commercial Crew was first proposed, Congress was still furious at then-President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the last attempt to return to the moon and go to Mars, President George W. Bush’s Project Constellation. The legislative branch considered the cancellation high handed and, despite the problems the program faced, politically motivated. Congress was prepared to take out its ire on the Commercial Crew program.

Boeing may have had problems bringing in new hardware on time and on budget. The Space Launch System is a prime example. But the big, legacy aerospace giant has a first-class Washington lobbying operation. Once Boeing put its influence behind the Commercial Crew program, Bolden and Garver suggested, congressional attitudes reversed course.

Nevertheless, based on just performance, aerospace company SpaceX has proved the efficacy of the Commercial Crew program. The fact is ironic because at the time Commercial Crew was first proposed, the company had few friends in Congress and was considered an upstart. Not only is SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial space company making regular flights to the International Space Station, but it has also turned its Crewed Dragon into a profit maker with private flights. The Inspiration4 flight, which raised money for St. Jude Children’s Cancer Research Hospital, and the Ax-1 commercial flight to the ISS have captured the world’s imagination.

Boeing would do well to learn from SpaceX and apply those lessons to its own operations. Boeing is already a partner in Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef, pledging to use the Starliner to send astronauts to and from the commercial space station. It should also consider taking the well-heeled and adventurous on private flights to low Earth orbit, just as SpaceX is.

Boeing could consider spinning off the Starliner to a separate subsidiary. It could call it “Boeing Space Line,” and run it the same way SpaceX is run: lean, nimble and unburdened by the bureaucracy that has characterized and held back Big Aerospace. Such an arrangement would be proof that the company can change and adapt over 100 years after its founding by William Boeing in 1916.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

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