With Crew Dragon’s first flight complete, where’s Boeing’s Starliner?
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — In a video promoting Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft the words “Your Ride Is Here” are prominently-placed. The statement suggests Starliner is prepped and ready to send crews to the International Space Station. How close is the company in terms of making reality match its words?
NASA has been working to hand over responsibility of the design and production of spacecraft (for both its crewed and autonomous missions) – over to private companies. Recent events provide an opportunity to review some of the progress made under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) which had its office established in 2005 under President George W. Bush.
According to the space agency:
“Part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, the office is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston…The office will manage orbital transportation capability demonstration projects that may lead to the procurement of commercial cargo and crew transportation services to resupply the space station.”
As noted, NASA has been investing a great deal in the emerging private space industry to help it grow in the U.S. market. From ferrying cargo and crew to the space station to developing robotic lunar landers the agency’s former philosophy of “owning” the spacecraft they pay for has transformed into one where it assists companies in developing these vehicles.
In terms of sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station, the two firms now working to achieve this goal are Boeing and SpaceX. The space agency announced substantial financial awards as the companies move through the program’s various phases. SpaceX has made steady progress with the launch, reentry and recovery during the Demo Flight 1 mission (March 2 – March 8).
For SpaceX, Demo Flight-1 was one of the most crucial milestones it had to complete under CCP’s mandate. Boeing has yet to complete several of these objectives and is starting to lag behind SpaceX.
Both companies are required to demonstrate that their vehicles adhere to the stringent rules that guide crew-rating any spacecraft the agency uses to launch astronauts. Boeing’s CST-100 “Starliner”capsule has encountered some troubling technical issues. Critical abort engines, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, leaked highly-toxic hydrazine fuel back in June of 2018, according to an Ars Technica report.
Boeing has yet to conduct a pad-abort-test (the current timeline places that test taking place in 2019), something that must be done prior to an crewed demonstration flight. SpaceX completed this milestone four years ago in 2015.
Some NASA officials initially deemed Starliner to be the Commercial Crew Program’s front-runner. Given that the company that is producing the spacecraft was founded in 1916 and has been involved with the United States’ space efforts since the opening days of the Space Age – it seemed a safe bet.
The “flawless” March 2, 2019 launch of a Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket and its payload of the automated Demo Flight-1 Crew Dragon spacecraft appears to suggest otherwise. Moreover, it was carried out by a company formed in 2002. An age gap isn’t the only thing that separates Boeing from SpaceX.
There are several differences between what the two companies are using to complete NASA’s CCP requirements:
- Crew Dragon – Designed to be reusable. First crewed flight is slated to take place in July of this year (2019).
- Falcon 9 (Block 5) – Designed to be reusable, the first version of the rocket was launched on June 4, 2010.
- Starliner CST-100 – Designed to be reusable up to 10 times. The first uncrewed flight (Orbital Flight Test 1) is currently targeted for April 2019 (one month after SpaceX is slated to have send astronauts to the International Space Station).
- Atlas V (422) – Not reusable. The first launch of this rocket conducted on Aug. 12, 2002 with the Hotbird 6 communications satellite.
Ordinarily, NASA requests proposals for projects and competing companies then bid on those contracts. Other established companies were considered but not approved to move forward through the different levels of the Commercial Crew Program.
In 2014 Boeing received some $4.2 billion to provide transportation services to the International Space Station. SpaceX, received an estimated $2.6 billion.
This article incorrectly stated that Boeing must conduct a pad-abort test prior to an uncrewed test flight. The pad-abort test mush take place prior to a crewed test flight. We apologize for this mistake and corrected this oversight at 9:32 p.m. EST on March 19, 2019.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.