Report suggests NASA made a $1.6B Boeing mistake
A damning new report released by NASA’s Office of Inspector General paints a dismal picture of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The report suggests one of the two participants attempted to extort the space agency for more money.
In Sept. 2016, Boeing offered NASA its price for four “post-certification missions” of Starliner. The prices, which are unknown, were rejected by NASA for being too expensive. Boeing negotiated with NASA for the payment of $287.2 million in order to allow Boeing “additional flexibilities.” These flexibilities would give Boeing the ability to “shorten lead times for spacecraft and rocket production”, which would reduce gaps in access to the Space Station.
The payment was mainly criticized by the Inspector General because NASA did not give SpaceX, the other Commercial Crew provider, a chance to provide a solution. Also, the payment is largely unnecessary as the Russian Soyuz vehicle still remains a viable option for lofting and returning crew to and from the Station.
Not only has Boeing failed “shorten lead times” it has fallen behind SpaceX in terms of which company is likely to return a capability the U.S. lost more than 8 years ago.
The timeline speaks to Boeing’s failings, the report speaks to Boeing’s tactics, and the financial facts speak to the inequity of the it all.
Under the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), Boeing was awarded $4.2B, with the other contributor, SpaceX being awarded $2.6B. As is the case with any new technological initiative, problems are to be expected. But problems appear to be plaguing CCP. The report, released on Thursday Nov. 14, 2019 details issues that continue to stalk the effort to develop space “taxis.”
With the possibility that the U.S. might lose the ability to send astronauts to the International Space Station as early as next year, 2020, the situation is starting to come to a head. Leaking abort engines, parachute woes and other problems have prevented either spacecraft from sending astronauts to the orbiting lab in 2015. Four years later the U.S. is still dependent on Russia for access to the ISS.
This release of the report comes at a time when Boeing has been under great pressure for a considerable amount of time. Boeing’s Space Launch System, which it is also building for NASA, has been delayed for years. The rocket was originally slated to launch in Nov. of 2018 but has since been delayed until late 2020 at the earliest. It is likely however, that the launch of the “Artemis 1” mission will slip into 2021. The program has also run into numerous cost overruns and has come under withering criticism due to these issues, the fact that it uses so-called “legacy” hardware, components that were used on NASA’s Saturn V rocket and the Space Shuttle, as well as the non-competitive nature of the vehicle.
SpaceX suffered an anomaly in April during a hot fire of Crew Dragon’s Launch Abort System that resulted in the loss of the spacecraft. Boeing also suffered an anomaly in 2018 that resulted in highly toxic hydrazine leaking after a test. Both companies have also faced difficulty with the parachute systems of each spacecraft. Most recently this was seen during Boeing’s pad abort test, when one of the three parachutes failed to deploy.
Boeing’s business practices have increasingly cast the company in a less-than favorable light. In fact, some of its philosophy and actions might actually be hurting space exploration efforts. One in particular, orbital refueling depots, was targeted by Boeing. This past summer Eric Berger, with Ars Technica cited ULA’s George Sowers as stating:
“Boeing became furious and tried to get me fired. Kudos to my CEO for protecting me. But we were banned from even saying the ‘d’ word out loud. Sad part is that ULA did a lot of pathfinding work in that area and could have owned the refueling/depot market, enriching Boeing (and Lockheed) in the process. But it was shut down because it threatened SLS.”
One would think that the Chicago-based company’s aviation efforts would help buoy the company’s image. That doesn’t appear to be the case. The company has been dealing with the worldwide grounding of its 737 MAX aircraft. The “next-generation” 737 suffered two fatal crashes in a span of less than six months. As a result, all 737 MAXs were grounded in March of this year, 2019. The date for their return to service remains to fluid and likely will not happen until sometime in 2020.
Patrick Attwell is a native of Houston, Texas but he currently resides in Austin, Texas where he studies accounting at Concordia University Texas. Atwell has had a passion for all things pertaining to aerospace, rocketry, and aviation. Atwell has worked to cover these fields for more than a decade. After he attended and watched the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission it gave him what is known in the space community as “rocket fever.” Since that time, Atwell has followed his dreams and has covered events dealing with NASA’s Commercial Crew flight assignments at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and other space-related events in the Lone Star State.