Boeing capsule is about to take astronauts to the ISS

Boeing capsule is about to take astronauts to the ISS

If all goes well, CTS-100 Starliner will make its first test flight with astronauts on board on Tuesday evening, May 21. Experienced astronauts Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore will then fly to the International Space Station in orbit around the Earth. They dock and return to Earth a week later. The spacecraft, developed by Boeing, will lift off on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 10:43 PM Dutch time.

“It is a historic event that people are going into space again in a new spacecraft,” says Erik Laan of the space consultancy company Eye On Orbit, “I will certainly follow the launch.”

After the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, Starliner is the second American spaceship that can again take people to the ISS. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space company, had already achieved this in 2020 with the Crew Dragon capsule.

This finally ended NASA’s uneasy dependence on Russia’s Soyuz rockets and capsules after nine years. Crew Dragon taxi flights to and from the ISS are now routine. Starliner now offers another alternative, but even a flawless test flight will only be a partial success for Boeing.

The unforeseen expenses cost Boeing $1.5 billion

The spaceship was supposed to fly in 2017, but the series of technical problems during development was very long, even for the delay-sensitive space sector. For example, a test flight without astronauts went wrong in 2019 due to a software error, causing the spaceship to waste too much fuel to arrive at the ISS. The test flight had to be canceled, which was a significant expense. Technical problems with valves and parachutes, among other things, led to further postponement, until this week. The unforeseen expenses cost Boeing $1.5 billion.

In 2014, the cards seemed to be very different. Established aerospace, defense and space giant Boeing received $4.2 billion from NASA to develop a manned space taxi. Only after lobbying did competitor SpaceX also receive such a contract, for 2.6 billion dollars.

An important detail was the form of the contract. Boeing was used to the traditional cost-pluscontracts: NASA designs something, the company builds it for an agreed sum, plus additional costs in case of the inevitable technical problems and delays. Such contracts, with little incentive for innovation, efficiency or even haste, had become cash cows for space companies, so NASA managers took a different tack.

The competitors were allowed to figure out how to design their space taxi and were paid as they achieved milestones. Technical problems are the responsibility of the company, but so are savings through innovations. This more competitive one fixed costcontract form had been a success in developing SpaceX’s commercial space freighter Cargo Dragon. But Boeing choked on it, during the same period when poor quality control at the aviation branch led to several aviation disasters and incidents.

Quite innovative

Yet Starliner, a truncated cone of 4.56 meters in diameter that is strongly reminiscent of the earlier Apollo capsules, is technically quite innovative. This makes it the first American capsule to land on land, instead of at sea, which makes collection a lot easier. The heat shield, which partly evaporates upon re-entering the atmosphere and burns up to absorb the heat, is thrown off after use. This way, the capsule can survive the baptism of fire unscathed, which should make Starliner reusable up to ten times.

The capsule can also be mounted on four different launch vehicles, a first. In addition to the Atlas V, which will launch it into space this time, these are the Delta IV rocket, the Falcon 9 rocket and the new Vulcan Centaur, which made its debut in January this year. But workhorse Atlas V is being retired, and will only fly six more operational Starliner flights. The Falcon 9 is from competitor SpaceX, and Delta IV has already been taken out of service.

Starliner also seems to be missing the boat when it comes to the destination. In the last decade, the end of the space station was regularly postponed by four years. But it is now clear that the space station will really crash back to Earth around 2030.

Various parties are working on commercial successors, where space tourists and researchers can live and work for a fee. Boeing is a partner with Starliner in the planned Orbital Reef space station. But whether such commercial space stations will really come to fruition, and whether they will tap into a serious market, remains to be seen. In any case, SpaceX, with its proven Crew Dragon, will probably be cheaper.

Also read
The ISS is almost empty. What comes next?

Yet Erik Laan of Eye on Orbit is optimistic about Starliner’s future. “Organizations that purchase launches would like to have a choice in case problems arise. As long as the price difference between the two is not extreme, there is room for two bakers in the village.”