Starliner, a space capsule designed by Boeing, landed safely in the New Mexico desert on Wednesday night. The vehicle’s return to Earth took place after a nearly week-long journey to the International Space Station. This trip has gone down in history as it was the first time that a private American company not called SpaceX had successfully arrived at the ISS.
Boeing has spent the last few years trying to build a capsule that could transport humans to the space station. And that’s exactly what he could do on his next mission, which is slated for later this year (the only Starliner passenger this time around was a model named Rosie the Rocketeer). If Boeing can successfully recreate the mission with human passengers on board, it will become the second US spacecraft certified to transport astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the only other US spacecraft to have done so (the US has occasionally sent astronauts to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz rocket).
Space is playing an increasingly active role in everyday life, whether through the rise of space tourism or the satellite internet. This makes this moment a milestone for competition in the commercial space industry. It’s also a critical step for anyone concerned that the future of space is already too dependent on one company, largely controlled by Elon Musk.
“SpaceX was once considered a new space player, but today it is so dominant that you can see it is a legacy player,” independent space policy expert Namrata Goswami told Recode. “NASA worked with Boeing on the Commercial Crew Program out of concern that if you’re relying on just one company, you could get in trouble if something goes wrong.”
For now, NASA is still dependent on SpaceX. While this week’s Starliner mission to the ISS was a success, Boeing will need to resolve several issues before its next launch. After the capsule – which was carried by an Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance, Boeing’s partnership with Lockheed Martin – took off, two of its thrusters shut down prematurely, forcing the vehicle to rely on backups.
There were also issues with the Starliner’s cooling system and issues with the vehicle’s software, components and sensors that delayed docking with the ISS by over an hour. Boeing says all of these issues can be fixed, and if that happens, NASA is about to certify the Starliner for travel to the ISS. The company can then launch its own astronaut taxi service and begin competing with SpaceX for space agency contracts. Ideally, this would not only make it easier for astronauts to visit the ISS, but also reduce the cost of space travel.
NASA has been working on a plan for years to avoid a space monopoly. After the agency retired the space shuttle program in 2011, the US government had no way of getting to the ISS and relied entirely on Russia for space travel, which was not only expensive but risky from a geopolitical perspective. To solve this problem, NASA changed its approach and turned to the private sector to build replacements. In 2014, the space agency announced that it had contracted Boeing and SpaceX to develop its own space capsules, that would ideally be ready to transport astronauts within three years. The agency made the deliberate choice to invest in two very different types of companies. Boeing was a long-time aerospace contractor and partner on projects with NASA, including the ISS and the Apollo lunar mission. SpaceX was a rising space startup and NASA’s new partner, representing the future of the commercial space industry.
Neither company had a vehicle ready in 2017 and both encountered problems with their landing parachutes and launch abort systems. SpaceX ended up successfully transporting human astronauts to the ISS with its Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020, while Boeing continued to struggle with the Starliner design. During the vehicle’s first test flight in 2019, Boeing discovered a major software bug that could have led to a massive crash. in space, as well as an issue with the capsule’s internal clock, which forced authorities to halt the test and cancel plans to dock the capsule with the ISS. Boeing was forced to postpone a second test last October after the company discovered a problem with the Starliner’s propulsion system just hours before launch. Despite all these problems — and even though it already has a working vehicle on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon — NASA remains eager for the Starliner to succeed with a manned mission to the ISS.
“If you only have one, you’re stuck in this situation where you can end up paying a lot of money because there’s no one else competing for the business, and that’s extremely expensive,” said Cristina Chaplain, a space analyst who previously examined space. programs for the Government Accountability Office. “Keeping costs down is important, and having that kind of competition is how you do it.”
This is part of a conscious effort by NASA. The agency took responsibility for promoting competition in the space industry, often by having multiple companies compete for the same lucrative contracts. This approach has already made their efforts to further explore the space more profitable. In the short term, this includes work on Artemis, NASA’s mission to return to the moon. And looking ahead, the agency is using this strategy as it begins the ISS replacement process, which is expected to take place around 2030. NASA has provided preliminary funding for at least four different space station concepts, including proposals by Northrop Grumman, which has been an aerospace and military contractor for decades, and Jeff Bezos’ space startup Blue Origin.
The race for commercial space might seem like a distant concern for Earth’s inhabitants, but it’s not. Competition in space launches is already having a real impact on satellite services like GPS, weather tracking and space internet services like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper. As more and more companies emerged capable of launching these satellites, all these technologies became more affordable. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program, for example, the price of sending a kilogram of payload into orbit has dropped by an order of magnitude, and the cost could drop even further as more and more startups are starting to launch satellites. Along with well-known companies like SpaceX and the long-running French launcher Arianespace, there are also a growing number of startups that are or may soon send satellites into space, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
“It has a profound impact on all data transmission, voice transmission, global positioning,” said William Kovacic, a George Washington University law professor who has written about competition in the space industry. “If the competition in this system falters, if we don’t have continuous innovation and performance improvement, if the launch vehicle providers can’t put the satellites in the right place, it will have a big ripple effect on the entire economy.”
The nightmare scenario of a space monopoly is not very different from the fear of a monopoly here on Earth. If a single company gains too much control in the space market and goes too far in its technology, future competitors could run out of space forever. This means that a single company, like SpaceX, could end up with enormous influence over how humans visit and use resources in space.
The stakes here are almost unimaginable. Space companies aren’t just shaping how humans will explore the Moon and other planets like Mars. They also shape the technologies we use every day, whether it’s internet services or products that haven’t been invented yet. If history is any indication, monopolies are generally bad, so it’s not ideal to begin humanity’s off-planet adventure depending on just one. The launch of Starliner is at least one more step forward to ensure that is not what happens.