The story of NASA’s commercial crew program, the bold endeavor by NASA a decade ago to outsource human spaceflight to a pair of companies, is a tale of contrast — of an improbable rise to prominence for one and an equally improbable fall from grace for the other.

SpaceX has emerged as the world’s leading space company, leveraging its lucrative contracts and relationship with NASA to design a rocket and spacecraft that helped it disrupt the space market, restore human spaceflight to the United States after the retirement of the space shuttle and build a multibillion-dollar business that now launches a rocket once every few days.

Boeing, on the other hand, is now finally poised to launch its first human spaceflight mission at 10:52 a.m. Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Fla. after two launch attempts were scrubbed because of mechanical issues with the rocket. Boeing has faced mechanical and software problems with its Starliner spacecraft that have cost $1.4 billion and counting in overruns and done immeasurable harm to its reputation as the nation’s premier aerospace company.

Its first flight with humans onboard was called off again Saturday, this time because of a computer problem with the rocket, operated by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The flight would carry NASA astronauts Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore to the International Space Station and last about eight days, in a mission to test how the spacecraft operates in space with people on board.

Once Boeing completes the flight, NASA would certify Starliner to fly regular crew rotation missions to the space station, carrying a full contingent of four astronauts for six-month stays. NASA has been eager to get Boeing flying so that it would give the space agency another spacecraft in addition to SpaceX, which has been flying crews to the station since 2020.

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While Boeing has struggled, its delays have stood in stark contrast to SpaceX’s success, and they highlight the gap between the way the two companies operate. Despite growing to more than 10,000 employees at multiple sites, SpaceX still performs like a scrappy start-up, able to move nimbly. It innovates quickly, testing hardware until it breaks, sometimes even triggering explosions, then makes adjustments and tries again and again until it gets it right. Instead of contracting with other companies for many of the parts that go into its vehicles, SpaceX builds much of its rockets and spacecraft in house.

As a massive defense contractor, Boeing operates in a more traditional manner, and flies when it thinks all of the hardware and subsystems have been thoroughly tested on the ground. The structure of the commercial crew contract, “fixed price,” meaning the companies eat any cost overruns, has been a difficult adjustment for Boeing, which typically has had “cost-plus” contracts with the government that reimbursed the company if it went over budget.

The upcoming crewed flight, then, is a critical milestone, one that Pam Melroy, the deputy NASA Administrator, has said is an “existential” moment for the company.

Boeing’s first crewed test flight was initially scheduled for May 6, but a couple hours before the scheduled launch time, teams noticed that a valve that regulates pressure and pushes the flow of propellants on the Atlas V rocket’s second stage was malfunctioning and called off the launch. Teams swapped out the valve but then discovered a helium leak in the spacecraft’s propulsion system, which officials said is so small it doesn’t pose an issue for the flight.

On Saturday, Starliner was in the final four minutes of the countdown to launch when an automated computer called off the launch because one of the computer systems was slow to come online. If Wednesday’s attempt is scrubbed, NASA has said Boeing could try again on Thursday. After then, however, the Atlas V rocket would have to roll back off the launchpad to swap out batteries, which would delay the flight for at least another 10 days.

Leading up to the test mission, NASA and Boeing said repeatedly that they would take the utmost care to ensure that the flight is done as safely as possible, and that the lives of the astronauts on board were the top priority. Delays are normal in spaceflight, particularly with humans on board a spacecraft that has never flown people.

To get to this point, however, has been a long and painful road. In December 2019, Boeing thought Starliner was ready for its first test flight without anyone on board. It did not go well. The autonomous capsule’s onboard computer was 11 hours off, so the spacecraft started executing commands for an entirely different part of the flight.

Engineers also soon discovered a second software problem, which could have caused the service module to crash into the crew capsule during separation ahead of reentering Earth’s atmosphere. The issues were so severe that NASA officials said the spacecraft could have been lost because of either of them, threatening the lives of astronauts, had any been on board. The flight never reached the space station but did return successfully.

The next launch attempt, in 2021, never got off the ground because several valves in the capsule’s service module were corroded shut. It finally flew a successful uncrewed flight to the station in 2022, but afterward discovered flammable tape in the capsule that needed to be removed as well as problems with the parachute system.

NASA and Boeing said in April they had solved all those problems and were ready. “I can say with confidence that the teams have absolutely done their due diligence,” said James Free, NASA’s associate administrator. The test flight has been postponed five times since.

SpaceX also had a series of setbacks initially that concerned NASA. Two of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded, one in 2015, the other in 2016. And during a 2019 test of its emergency abort system, the Dragon capsule that was to carry astronauts also blew up.

But since then, SpaceX has flown multiple missions for NASA, as well as taken private astronauts to the station and to orbit. It also has received an extension on its contract with NASA to fly astronaut missions.

Its relationship with NASA was a long time building. SpaceX initially won a contract in 2006 as part of a program to begin to develop cargo transportation to the space station, an award that essentially saved it from bankruptcy. In 2008, it won a $1.6 billion contract to begin flying supply missions to the station.

As NASA began relying on its rockets and spacecraft, SpaceX argued that the Pentagon should as well, and eventually the company started winning contracts to fly some of the country’s most sensitive national security satellites to space.

The government’s investment in SpaceX, as well as the company’s high flight rate, in-house manufacturing and efficient business practices — along with CEO Elon Musk’s unrelenting drive to push his employees to work harder and faster — has allowed it to offer launches at prices far below those of its competitors, which, in turn, has allowed it to capture more business and revenue.

As it has grown, SpaceX has moved to build a constellation of satellites, called Starlink, that allow users to access the internet, even from remote locations. SpaceX now operates about 6,000 Starlink satellites and says it has 3 million customers.

In addition to flying its Falcon 9 rocket, which launched almost 100 times last year, an unprecedented rate, it is now working toward developing its next-generation Starship rocket, the most powerful ever to fly.

As SpaceX’s capabilities have grown, so has NASA’s confidence, and investment, in the company.

In 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use Starship to land astronauts on the moon. On each of its first three test flights, Starship has made methodical progress. The fourth could come as early as Thursday, the day Boeing hopes Starliner will finally reach the space station.



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