Monday, April 13, 2020

Boeing Continues Their Fall From Acceptance

A news item on Ars Technica last Friday opened with a quote from NASA's acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, that probably caused collective shivers in the halls of all the big Defense/big Government contractors:
... I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration.
Let's start with the Boeing 737 Max.  Everyone knows those stories, that the most recent model of one of the most successful Air Transport aircraft has been grounded for a year after two crashes that killed 346 people between them, collectively making for the worst air disaster since September 11, 2001.

I wasn't aware of the issues with the company's KC-46 Pegasus tanker program, which is $3 billion over budget, three years behind schedule, and beset by technical issues.  In March, the Air Force revealed that it had upgraded chronic leaks in the aircraft's fuel system to a Category I deficiency. This is a problem for an aircraft that is supposed to perform aerial refueling.

Of course, we've covered the deficiencies in the Starliner capsule test flights here (one, two, three, four) along with the fact that Boeing is the prime contractor for the Space Launch System, which is several years late and billions of dollars over budget. 
Since December, the company's space issues have also become more widely known following the failure of the company's Starliner capsule to successfully carry out a test flight to the International Space Station. NASA labelled this aborted mission, during which the spacecraft was nearly lost two times, a "high visibility close call." The company has agreed to perform a second test flight without crew to assure NASA of Starliner's safety.
The SLS was supposed to fly by 2017, but now is likely to be No Earlier Than 2021.

The article on ARS summarizes Boeing's meteoric fall from grace with NASA and is worth a read.  I'll extract some highlights here.
But a new document released by NASA reveals the broader scope of Boeing's apparent decline in spaceflight dominance. The "source selection statement" from NASA explains the space agency's rationale for selecting SpaceX over three other companies—Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada Corporation—to deliver large supplies of cargo to lunar orbit. NASA announced its selection of SpaceX for this "Gateway Logistics" contract in late March. The selection document says that SpaceX provided the best technical approach and the lowest price by a "significant" margin.
When comparing the selection rationale for the 2014 commercial crew contracts with the rationale for the recent Gateway logistics contract, the perception of Boeing's offering could not be more stark. In 2014, Boeing was very much perceived as the gold-standard—expensive, yes, but also technically masterful. In 2020, the company was still perceived as expensive but not ultimately worthy of consideration.
Six years later, the perception of Boeing's bid for the lunar cargo contract is much changed. Of the four contenders, it had the lowest overall technical and mission suitability scores. In addition, Boeing's proposal was characterized as "inaccurate" and possessing no "significant strengths." Boeing also was cited with a "significant weakness" in its proposal for pushing back on providing its software source code.

Due to its high price and ill-suited proposal for the lunar cargo contract, NASA didn't even consider the proposal among the final bidders. In his assessment late last year, NASA's acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, wrote, "Since Boeing’s proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration."
NASA itself is in danger of the same collapse.  Looking over 10 year old blog entries, as I've been doing, I recently came across one from 2010 where I advocated shuttering the agency.  I thought they were nothing but an arthritic bureaucracy back then.  But NASA is still relatively admired among government agencies by the public and is currently working with new intensity to meet President Trump's goal of returning America to the moon to stay by 2024.
It is notable that the most likely scenario involves launching crew and a lander on the same rocket, which would require Boeing to both complete the Space Launch System rocket's core stage—under development for nearly a decade now—as well as a brand-new second stage called the Exploration Upper Stage before then.
I lump Boeing getting the SLS and the new EUS flying in time in the "Fat Frickin' Chance" category ("only he didn't say frickin'").  While America seems to largely still admire NASA, the advent of commercial space and SpaceX's emergence as a dominant force in the world's launch industry seems to be getting people to see that commercial companies are results-oriented, while NASA is a typical government income redistribution project, and many in NASA see that as the agency's purpose, where tax money is spread among lots of congressional districts to ensure the program can't be killed. 

Boeing's Starliner capsule after the early end of its December mission.  I'm not going to bet this was Boeing's last launch, but I wouldn't be terribly shocked if it proved be their second to last.  They say there's nothing more permanent than a temporary Government program, but NASA's last few years may have broken the SLS's lock on congress.

Side Note:  Not a big story in terms of things to say, but Rocket Lab, the New Zealand small satellite launch company I've talked about several times, successfully achieved helicopter recovery of one of their Electron boosters.  They're not landing on a ship or concrete pad with engines blazing like a Falcon 9, but adding re-usability has to lower cost and make them a better competitor.  Video here.


  1. I work at a large aerospace concern (not Boeing), and I used to work on a space project well over the bureaucratic event horizon. The *dissolution* of our great engineering companies is something that bothers me, a lot. The sheer bloated inability to get *anything* done is infuriating, and it has wasted years of my professional life.

    I don't know if "burning it all down" will leave the field clear for something else to grow. (But maybe it's a start!) I have my reservations about "SpaceX-uber-alles", though I admire that they're at least trying to solve the right long term problems that everyone else has spent decades ignoring.

    My worry is that our nation is so ossified with a caste system topped by idiots that nothing new will grow in the crater left by the fall of the defense-giants. Or that anything that gets sufficiently touched by the nigh-demonic defense-acquisitions culture will turn into yet another Orwellian bureaucracy.


    1. I agree whole heartedly good Sir... unfortunately I feel the patient is too sick to save. Its been on pallatative care for 15 years. Time to pull the plug and start over fresh. The plan was good, actors incourigable. Pass the ammo, now lets get to work!

  2. I don't know what to do with NASA. Part of me wants to hug it and celebrate its victories and keep it going. Like their probes and landers, all seem to be doing far better than ever expected. YAY!

    Then I look at their track record with space telescopes... Ummmm... Yeah... Not so great. Still pretty good, but not great. Hubble was a complete screwup that barely managed to get fixed. The Webb telescope? That was supposed to be in orbit... 4 years ago? And now NASA still saying, "Two to three years from now, two to three years..."

    Manned flight? That's been screwed up for, well, Day 1. If it hadn't been a mutiny by the Mercury astronauts, there would have been no capsule controls and we would have lost at least 2 missions. Gemini was great, as they actively listened to the astronauts from the beginning. But Apollo? The astronauts knew it was a turkey before Apollo 1. And it took killing people to fix the issues that should never have been at all. And then, after fine-tuning capsule tech to the highest level yet achieved short of SpaceX, they threw it all away on the Shuttle...

    And then there is Post-Shuttle NASA. Who can't figure out that 20+ year old space suits used for EVAs are falling apart, and yet still no next-gen or even same-gen suits are being built.

    Boeing? Boeing of the past is great. Boeing of the present? Dead to me. Boeing of the future? Seriously would be surprised if they last 5 more years.

    1. I don't know what to do with NASA. Part of me wants to hug it and celebrate its victories and keep it going. Like their probes and landers, all seem to be doing far better than ever expected. YAY!

      I think that's the JPL's expertise, not NASA's. I don't know who is responsible for the Hubble, but the mistake was so huge that literally an amateur mirror maker with a light bulb and razor blade doing a Foucault test could have told them the mirror was wrong. They chose to believe the test they ran because it was certified, but never caught that the certified test was setup wrong. I think that was Perkin Elmer's screwup, but certainly NASA approved that.

      NASA's problem is that they've come to be another proof of Pournelle's Iron Law. They've become an institution dedicated to income redistribution and not exploration. As the Iron Law implies, that's pretty much inevitable for government agencies.

      The subtitle in that Ars Technica article I linked to near the bottom says it all: "As far as I'm concerned, SLS and Orion are doing their jobs of providing work." They think like Ariane Space, who said they didn't want reusable rockets because that would cost jobs.

    2. "I think that's the JPL's expertise, not NASA's."

      And that's what NASA should be doing. Issuing requests, monitoring and helping guide. Serving sort of as SPACE DARPA and the SPACE FAA.

      It should not be the end-all, be-all of space.

      Regulatory compliance of space companies? Yep. But... that's already covered by a bunch of already existing federal agencies. So either NASA take over all regulatory things regarding space or NASA should just stop with the regulatory stuff.

      Monitoring near-space? Um, that's handled by the USAF and soon to be the USSF.

      So stick with the Space-DARPA stuff and back the heck off.

      It should not be a jobs-program. If they want to futz with stuff, they should be working on civilian NERVA programs and other cutting edge stuff.

  3. Very sad to hear this about Boeing. The time I spent with Boeing, and the people I worked with, were the absolute apogee of my career.

    And having said that, some of their top-level execs, and even a few Engineers, were impediments to getting stuff done. I'm sure they still have scores of Good People there, but management holds them back.

    1. 28-year Boeing engineer here, retired Tech Fellow (2013). What you say is true. From my communications with people who are still there, or have very recently retired, most of the good people have fled. As much of a nightmare as the place was after Stonecipher, apparently it has gotten far, far worse in the last seven years.

  4. The government and these companies are riddled with bureaucratic incompetence. Lots of the military side is govt mandated:hiring quotas etc. and the need to have a counterpart to the .gov agency employee in Def Contracts Mgt Agency (DCMA) who provide no added value to any contract.
    Fed Acquisition Regs (FAR) also add cost with minimal benefit, and require bureaucracy to manage. Mandated compliance training, including ethics - look how well that works! And on and on...
    As to specifics: KC-46 uses the GE Flt Mgt System (FMS). LOTS of issues with that- it was a major reason the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program (AMP) failed - a 10 year boondoggle awarded to Boeing.
    KC-46 tanker contract is a prime example of malfeasance. Numerous rebids, criminal conduct resulting in, IIRC, two prison sentences for former military officers, and a questionably effective product.
    You have to work within a bureaucratic system run by incompetents, .gov malfeasance exists because there are minimal consequences, and the bloat prevents effective engineering.
    Not sure what the answer is, but serious pruning is required.

  5. I have not been following the commercial space developments closely, so something has me a bit confused. Rocket Lab says they plan to recover boosters from the ocean after a parachute landing. So what is the purpose of the mid-air helicopter recovery? Neither process appears to have a great operational advantage, but I suppose it would be good to keep sea water out of your rocket.

    1. I believe they switched over to parachute recovery instead of recovering them from the ocean. As you say, sea water is nasty stuff.

      I don't know what their carbon fiber boosters cost, but the heavy lift helicopter and crew must be cheaper. It's mature technology after all. The US military has been recovering things dropped by parachute for decades.

    2. Based on Mike Patey's videos, carbon fiber is $$$pendy. Making a whole booster hull out of it would encourage anyone to get more than one trip out of it. Those choppers didn't really look like heavy lifters like that mantis looking job. Helicopter recovery does have a certain marginal history.

  6. In 1984 I met a teacher who was his school's (a single building in NYC)coordinator for NASA. He basically was a cheerleader for the NASA budget. I then knew that NASA was FUBAR and it did it to itself. Later in the early 2000's I met a man who was in maintanence for a group of buildings in Maryland who said that the people in these buildings did basic research - essentially nothing to do with space. That is why there is a space command NASA is useless. They have been designing a "new" space shuttle since when maybe the mid 70's and they do not even have a full set of requirments never mind a mockup. When a commercial company has an non or underperforming division it is cut loose or closed you cannot fix a hive mind centered upon failure.

  7. Obama turned NASA into another of his screwed up social engineering disasters and the
    really smart "rocket scientists" left for firms that would pay them to do the work they loved. The second stringers hung on and played the Obama games for their paycheck.
    I know less about Boeing (though I made a good deal of money on the stock about 18 years ago). I will hazard to say that it probably caught some of the NASA PC disease and took
    its corporate eye off the smart engineering ball by hiring with that loopy intent in mind.
    I wonder how many HR officers enforcing every type of ridiculous equality nuttiness they
    have now replacing really good engineers with the "correct" kind of chucklehead incompetents?

  8. Boeing is just another symptom of the larger disease called USA. Exceptional arrogance fueled by mass greed got us here and can't be fixed by anything short of multiple nukes. The USA peaked in 1969, from there it's been downhill ever since.
    Except in the minds of the modern parent telling us how exceptional their kids are..........not.

  9. Please do understand that BOTH crashes of the 737 Max were merely third world culture pretending it was competent to operate first world equipment. The recovery procedure for the failure those aircraft experienced was the same as that for runaway stabilizer trim, which has been standard for EVERY Boeing 737! Look into the cockpit next time you fly and decide whether the pilots are there for "diversity" or if they actually look like they are competent to fly...

  10. NASA is a jobs program. During the last eclipse, they touted putting together a braille book about eclipses. Should there be braille books? Certainly. But NASA shouldn't be making them.

    1. Most of corporate America is nothing more than large money laundering operations. It's how the politicians get paid for loyalty and how you make money disappear down a million rabbit holes.

  11. What is the point of going to the Moon to "stay"? What is the commercial/scientific profit?

    1. the point of going to the Moon to "stay"?
      Its so the astronauts can plant a rainbow flag and open an abortion clinic at taxpayer expense.

    2. It is to keep the Chi-Coms from commandeering that high ground. The goal of the Chinese Communists is total world domination by 2049 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Maoist State. We DO NOT want them to own the Moon or Mars because the want to claim the totality of all of outer space.

  12. Boeing has jumped the shark. They got to where their main customer became the stockholder rather than those who receiver their products or services. The PC culture infiltrated the corporation both through lawsuits and hiring those with "useless studies" degrees into HR and other such internal organizations. But even the STEM people have been infected with the PC culture while at university. Another factor I have heard is that the old, failed MacDonald-Douglas mid-level management has become the top-level management. When politics and budget (minimized for stockholder gain) become the driving forces, then you get Boeing now.