Investing in space: Boeing is getting closer to launching Starliner

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sits on the pad the day after a launch attempt by two astronauts aboard Boeing’s Starliner-1 Crew Flight Test (CFT) was postponed due to technical problems ahead of a mission to the International Space Station at Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA May 7, 2024.

Steve Nesius | Reuters

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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is finally on the path and is on the cusp of carrying astronauts for the first time. It’s a debut that’s imminent, yet feels bizarrely insignificant in the rarefied atmosphere of human spaceflight.

For the company, Starliner’s first crewed flight is a notch in Boeing’s space belt. But beyond that, the mission doesn’t represent a strong, new competitor in the market; it’s more like a former marathon runner who has let himself go and is now gasping for breath over the finish line, a far cry from previous personal bests.

Boeing itself has previously said it would like to move forward with astronaut launches and that it would not commit to more operations beyond NASA’s current schedule.

Look, Boeing has a lot more going on. And the company is already in the backup position for flying NASA astronauts. After years of setbacks and delays, and billions spent by both taxpayers and the company, the likely outcome is that Starliner will fly with crew seven times – this test flight and another six operational missions – and no more after that.

And even this test flight doesn’t feel like a given. Last week, after delaying the launch due to a valve problem on the rocket, the date was pushed back again to May 21 after Boeing discovered “a small helium leak discovered in the spacecraft’s service module, traced to a flange on a single thrust of the reaction control system.” Boeing will test the capsule’s propulsion system before we move on, so we’ll see if the May 21 target holds up.

I would love to be proven wrong about the future of Starliner. After all, human spaceflight is a small but important part of the broader industry, and competition would be welcome from companies building places where people can work and live outside Earth’s atmosphere.

But it would take a miraculous turnaround before Starliner could make up any ground on the thus far dominant track record of SpaceX’s Dragon.

There have been plenty of headlines about the human spaceflight competition over the past decade. The upcoming Starliner crew test does not mean the race has started again.

What is

  • The Air Force is concerned about ULA’s pace with Vulcan, with Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Frank Calvelli writing a blunt letter to space chiefs at Boeing and Lockheed Martin about the progress of the rocket joint venture. ULA could fly a “dummy” payload for the second Vulcan launch, essential for military certification, if Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane isn’t ready by the end of the year. – The Washington Post/SpaceNews
  • SpaceX aims for fourth Starship test flight in June, CEO Elon Musk said this with the goal of “getting beyond maximum heating, or at least beyond last time.” – Reuters
  • SpaceX subcontractors and suppliers file liens in Texas on unpaid bills: Property records show that “more than two dozen companies have filed at least 72 liens against sites developed by SpaceX and its contractors since 2019.” – Reuters
  • Starlink satellites weather geomagnetic storm, as SpaceX’s Vice President of Starlink Engineering Michael Nicolls said, “The conditions were intense.” The company said the spacecraft “remains healthy” in orbit. – Nicolls
  • FAA launches environmental review for spaceship launches from NASA’s Kennedy in Florida, where work is beginning to prepare an environmental impact statement to approve launches. – RuimteNieuws

Industry maneuvers

  • Lockheed Martin orders 18 satellite buses from Terran Orbital for the defense contractor’s Space Development Agency (SDA) Tranche 2 (T2) Tracking Layer contract. – Terran Orbital
  • Amazon adds Project Kuiper logistics facility looking to hire as many as 200 technicians in Everett, Washington. It has also begun production of its production satellites at the Kirkland site. – Amazon
  • Redwire adds the Phantom spacecraft platform to its portfolio, a very low Earth orbit (VLEO) platform being developed at its Belgian facility for a variety of missions, like its other VLEO spacecraft SabreSat. – Thread

Market movers

  • AST SpaceMobile shares soar higher after commercial deal with AT&T, a six-year agreement “to deliver a space-based broadband network directly to everyday mobile phones.” The satellite maker plans to deliver its first five commercial spacecraft this summer, ready for launch later this year. – AST SpaceMobile
  • Terran Orbital’s Q1 results saw the company take a $13 million charge due to problems with a propulsion supplier, while quarterly revenue fell slightly year-over-year to $27.2 million. – Terran orbital
  • Intuitive Machines plans to launch a second moon mission later this year, an expectation the company reaffirmed during its first-quarter report. The company posted record revenue of $73.1 million during the quarter. – Intuitive machines

Go bravely

  • Mark Kirasich, former NASA official, joins The Exploration Company to lead the European company’s U.S. subsidiary in Houston, Texas. Previously, Kirasich was Blue Origin’s senior director of human spaceflight and before that had a nearly 40-year career at NASA, where he rose to become the agency’s deputy assistant administrator in developing the Artemis moon campaign. – The Exploration Company
  • David Salvagnini named NASA’s Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer, the agency’s first in this role and an expansion of his previous role as Chief Data Officer. –NASA
  • Kenneth Crews selected to become CFO of Northrop Grumman. He previously served as the company’s CFO for its aerospace systems division. – Northrop Grumman

On the horizon

  • May 17: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.
  • May 19: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches the NROL-146 mission from California.
  • May 19: Blue Origin’s New Shepard launches NS-25 crew mission from Texas.
  • May 21: ULA’s Atlas V launches Boeing’s Starliner crew flight test from Florida.
  • May 22: Rocket Lab’s Electron launches NASA’s PREFIRE Mission 1 from New Zealand.

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