Starliner: Boeing no longer has the right to fail its space capsule

A curse to forget and a coat of arms to restore. That, in essence, is the dual challenge Boeing faced at the end of May 2022. On Thursday night (0:54 am Paris time), its Starliner capsule is due to take off from Florida on top of an Atlas V rocket, to the second attempt of your empty qualifying flight. Destination: the international space station, to which it is due to dock on Friday, with 230 kg of cargo and provisions on board for the crew. Return to Earth is scheduled for May 27.

The stakes are up to the disappointments accumulated by the program. It has been almost eight years since the Seattle giant was awarded one of two contracts by NASA for the design and commercial operation of a manned capsule to serve the ISS. The conclusion is clear: the Starliner has not yet entered service, while the second winner, SpaceX, has already performed three of the six rotations planned for 2024 – the fourth in progress – and that the American space agency has ordered three more from it by 2028.

catastrophic incident

If the two companies faced the same pitfalls and incurred the same delays during the development phase, their fates followed diametrically opposite paths to the launch of the qualification tests, in 2019. While SpaceX crossed the different stages without any problems, obtaining Crew certification Dragon in the fall of 2020, Boeing was sinking into a crisis reminiscent of that found in civil aviation at the same time with the 737 MAX.

In December 2019, Starliner’s first empty flight ended in fiasco. Victim of software errors, the capsule failed to reach the ISS and narrowly escaped destruction during its return to Earth, owing its salvation only to urgent corrections from the ground. “We could have missed the spacecraft twice,” said Doug Loverro, then head of human spaceflight at NASA.

Starliner, photographed after returning to Earth from its first empty test flight in late 2019.NASA/Bill Ingalls

It took more than a year for Boeing to make the necessary changes. And six more months to find a new date in the midst of an overloaded release schedule. Back on the launch pad in midsummer 2021, the Starliner didn’t even leave the ground, paralyzed by a leak of nitrogen peroxide, used as an oxidizer, having corroded a valve in the on-orbit propulsion system. After several days of procrastination, the decision was made to cancel the mission, finally postponed to 2022.

In three years, Boeing had to set aside nearly $600 million to make up for these disappointments. And it finds itself in conflict with one of its suppliers, Aerojet Rocketdyne, over the source of the failure observed last summer. If a “short-term” solution is found to avoid the long and tedious replacement of damaged valves, Boeing does not rule out a complete system overhaul at a later date.

NASA still in support

In addition to these technical pitfalls, it is the program’s relevance itself that fluctuates. It had been questioned in the fall of 2019 by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which accused the agency of overpaying Boeing by awarding $4.3 billion to SpaceX’s $2.5 billion. The OIG then estimated the price of a seat aboard the Starliner at US$90 million – equivalent to that paid by the United States between 2011 and 2021 for each seat aboard the Russian Soyuz – against US$55 million on the Crew Dragon.

There’s also the issue of needing a second ship, while Crew Dragon has been reassigned to various missions that should have been carried out by Starliner. NASA always insists on the need to have two systems to maintain low orbit access in case one of the two capsules is unavailable. A directive whose irony does not escape any of the actors.

“Our goal is to really certify Starliner. Our program is designed to work with two capsules,” Steve Stich, head of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Tuesday, adding that he would “love” to see Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft survive the international space station beyond 2030.

future at stake

On the Seattle side, it is underlined that NASA missions will not, in fact, be the only way out. Boeing already signed an agreement last October with Blue Origin and Sierra Space for Starliner to serve its Orbital Reef commercial space station, which is expected to enter service in 2030.

Before talking about that future, the aircraft manufacturer would do well to successfully complete its second empty qualifying flight. Even if successful, it will still be several months before a first manned test can be performed, the last essential step towards certification. If all goes – well – as planned, Starliner can’t be declared good for service until next year, at best, more than two years after Crew Dragon. In the event of another failure, on the other hand, questions about its future will inevitably become more pressing.

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