Monday, May 6, 2024

Guess We Wait Another Day for Starliner

Word got out around 8:30 PM that the Crewed Flight Test of Boeing's Starliner has been scrubbed for at least 24 hours, apparently due to an out of bounds reading from the Atlas V booster.  The exact problem wasn't talked about while I was watching/listening to the video coverage on NASA

As of now, 9 PM as I write, the scrub has been called a 24 hour scrub, but that can change as the fault is looked into in more detail. 

Payload has provided a good summary of the story behind Starliner and how it got to this point. A more pointed story comes form Eric Berger at Ars Technica, who says, “The surprise is not that Boeing lost commercial crew but that it finished at all.” 

From where we sit today, knowing the story along the way, it's easy to lose sight of important details. Ten years ago when the private crewed spacecraft contracts were first being debated and discussed, pretty much everyone thought Boeing would be the easy winner. 

Boeing was the easy favorite. The majority of engineers and other participants in the meeting argued that Boeing alone should win a contract worth billions of dollars to develop a crew capsule. Only toward the end did a few voices speak up in favor of a second contender, SpaceX. At the meeting's conclusion, NASA's chief of human spaceflight at the time, William Gerstenmaier, decided to hold off on making a final decision.

A few months later, NASA publicly announced its choice. Boeing would receive $4.2 billion to develop a "commercial crew" transportation system, and SpaceX would get $2.6 billion. It was not a total victory for Boeing, which had lobbied hard to win all of the funding. But the company still walked away with nearly two-thirds of the money and the widespread presumption that it would easily beat SpaceX to the space station.

In addition to that $4.2 billion fixed price contract that they blew through, they've spent more money out their own pockets - an additional loss of $1.5 billion. In addition to that $1.5 billion loss, there are costs from lost opportunities. Dragon first carried people to the space station nearly four years ago. In that span, the Crew Dragon vehicle has flown thirteen public and private missions to orbit. Because of this success, Dragon will end up flying 14 operational missions to the station for NASA, earning a tidy fee each time, compared to just six for Starliner. 

The problems Boeing had were all self-created, all a result of their corporate culture not knowing how to manage a fixed price contract, instead of the cost-plus contracts behind everything else the spacecraft division of Boeing worked on. There are stories of different software groups essentially refusing to work with each other, managers creating "milestones" on their schedule that would get a payday when NASA approved but that meant little or nothing. There are stories that some Boeing managers have said, "we're never doing that again" when questioned about fixed price contracts and others say they will. In a time when the private sector is practically bursting with small, hungry, hardworking companies, if Boeing can't figure out how to live with fixed price contracts, those small companies will eat their lunch. Or buy the space division from Boeing and put them out of the business.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner being installed on its Atlas 5 rocket last week. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett


  1. Wonder how much further Boeing would be if they had gone to a modified X-37 platform.

    As it is, Starliner? God, I hope it works.

    1. Astronaut Office would NEVER accept a winged vehicle for crew transport.
      The REAL surprise is that they are accepting small solid strap-ons. THAT has been intolerable in the past.

    2. How much further along would be NASA and space expoloration be if Boeing / NASA had gone with the X-37? About a decade ahead; X-37 was launching and landing 2010s.

    3. Mark, do not the SRBs on the shuttle count as "solid strap-ons"?

    4. Mark, that's funny because DreamChaser is based upon the ISS mini-shuttle/lifeboat that NASA designed and was about to put into test production before Congess cancelled it.

    5. Beans, that just goes to prove that CONgress is the opposite of PROgress.

    6. A decade to re-invent whats more or less an enlarged Apollo.

  2. "Adapt or die." - meteor hurtling through space straight at the dinosaurs

    Boeing needs to either move into the Holocene epoch, or else start making out their corporate last will & testament.

    If Starliner doesn't do a lot better than the 737 MAX, they may as well start looking into assisted suicide.
    And not just metaphorically.

  3. Are there ANY other doors on the Starliner other than the crew hatch?? If so, they'd better be welded shut!
    (Just having fun at Boeing's expense...)

  4. Says a lot here is a company that big, with a culture incapable of making a profit without running an unlimited open cost plus racket, and more or less openly whine about it. No question where it's leadership's interests are. And to think all the excellent smaller aerospace companies it has gobbled up, shame all that technological expertise and unique skilled labor-force pretty much is lost from restructuring, watched that happen with my own eyes a number of occasions. It's highly perishable, lost so quickly.

  5. Boeing should change their slogan: "We've weaponized incompetence!"