For anyone who cares about the future of manned spaceflight, it’s been a dramatic week. On Wednesday, June 5, Boeing’s Starliner space capsule lifted off, with two veteran astronauts on board. The vehicle’s first crewed launch, after years of mishaps and delays, was a long overdue piece of good news in Boeing’s troubled quest to enter the private space business. Less than 24 hours later, as Starliner approached its rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX launched a dramatic fourth unmanned test flight of its next-generation Starship spacecraft.

Both successful launches represent big steps forward in NASA’s plans to rely more on private companies to build and fly the vehicles that will carry American astronauts back to the moon and beyond. But the two missions tell very different stories about Boeing and SpaceX, two of the key firms NASA hopes to rely on for future space travel.

The Boeing craft, crewed by Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, sailed into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a major private space vendor. The mission encountered some worrisome hitches. Before liftoff, engineers had worked to stop a tiny helium leak in the pressurized system that pushes propellant into the small thrusters used to maneuver the capsule in orbit. Rather than delaying the mission further, Boeing and NASA determined the problem was “acceptable” and moved on with their plans. But once in orbit, two more helium leaks were discovered. Given that the booster system is highly redundant—and that helium poses no danger to the spacecraft or the astronauts—the engineers determined the mission could go forward.

Then, on Thursday, several Starliner thrusters “failed off” as the craft moved into position to dock with the ISS. Williams and Wilmore were forced to pilot the capsule manually as they aborted the maneuver and backed away from the space station. After an hour of troubleshooting, Starliner was cleared to move in again for docking, this time successfully. If all goes well, the pair will spend about a week on the ISS before ending the shakedown cruise with reentry and a dry-land touchdown at one of five potential locations in the western U.S. Assuming NASA dubs the mission a success, it means the agency now has two private companies qualified to fly American astronauts into orbit and possibly beyond.

The mission Starliner is finally conducting—carrying astronauts to the ISS—is one that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been doing routinely since 2020. Now, Musk’s team is working on a much bigger breakthrough in space travel. Its Starship spacecraft is intended, in the company’s words, to be “a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.” Towering almost 400 feet high with its booster attached, it is the most powerful rocket ever launched. NASA has already selected Starship as a vehicle it can use to land astronauts on the lunar surface as part of the agency’s Artemis program. But first SpaceX must prove that its gargantuan craft can take off, orbit, and land safely. Each of the company’s three previous Starship test flights has ended in a spectacular fireball as the craft reached its design limits. But with each flight, the ship has made it farther into its mission, and SpaceX has acquired crucial data allowing it to improve on the design.

Thursday’s flight was a jaw dropper, with Starship surviving a complete journey through launch, into orbit, and then reentering the atmosphere on its way to a controlled ocean splashdown. The ship’s Super Heavy booster was able to return to the waters close to its Texas launch site, where it, too, made a controlled splashdown. (Once in full operation, the Starship orbital vehicles and booster rockets will land on solid ground, where they can be rapidly refueled and flown again.) On Thursday’s flight, Starship was able to maintain a continuous connection to Musk’s Starlink Internet satellite network, giving ground observers a gripping view of the ship’s fiery reentry. At about 35 miles above the surface, as observers could see, some of Starship’s protective heat tiles appeared to fail, and one of four flaps controlling the ship’s path began to shed fiery chunks.

“We’re hoping the ship can hang on,” the company’s livestream narrator said cheerfully. Starship did survive and fired its engines to achieve a gentle drop into the Indian Ocean.

The back-to-back Starliner and Starship missions hold several lessons for the future of spaceflight. Boeing’s qualified success so far is good news for a company struggling to regain public trust in the safety of its civilian airliners. Assuming the company can fix the ship’s troubling leaks and thruster problems, it’s also good news for NASA. “SpaceX needs a competitor,” former NASA official Lori Garver told me in a phone interview before the launch. Garver, who served as NASA’s deputy administrator under President Obama, was a key architect of the program to cultivate commercial vendors able to launch cargo and astronauts for the agency. Garver and others hope to see a whole ecosystem of private companies qualified to launch rockets and perform other space services for set fees. In broad strokes, NASA’s commercial space program is similar to a group of anglers who charter fishing boats as needed, rather than owning and operating their own fleet.

When NASA began to develop the commercial space program concept in the mid-2000s, SpaceX was a scrappy startup that few took seriously. But between its work with NASA and a thriving business launching satellites for communications companies and other clients, Musk’s space company eventually became a global powerhouse. When NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, SpaceX was eager to take up the slack. It began launching cargo to the ISS in 2012.

In 2014, NASA announced its Commercial Crew program. It would provide seed money to one or two private companies that it believed capable of building and flying human-rated spacecraft into orbit, and ultimately beyond. But unlike the space shuttle or previous NASA space platforms, those vehicles would be owned and operated by the companies themselves.

When the project began, most insiders assumed that Boeing would become the dominant—perhaps the only—company hired to fly NASA astronauts. After all, Boeing was the world’s biggest aerospace company and had built space hardware for NASA since the agency’s early days. In 2014, the agency announced that it would award Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to build a transportation system “capable of carrying people into orbit.” But NASA surprised many by granting a $2.6 billion contract to SpaceX for the same purpose. Some NASA insiders were appalled. SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules had been delivering cargo to the ISS since 2012, but the company had never launched a human into space. It seemed the race was Boeing’s to lose.

But the Commercial Crew program operates on an unforgiving business model: under NASA’s traditional “cost-plus” contracts, a contractor builds hardware to the agency’s specifications and passes any cost overruns on to the government. But Commercial Crew uses fixed-price contracts; the manufacturer must absorb any losses incurred while building its space vehicle. That requirement proved to be a bitter pill for Boeing. While SpaceX—with its lean, tech-startup culture—rapidly improved its Falcon rockets and redesigned its Dragon capsule, Boeing struggled to build its vehicle on time and on budget.

As Ars Technica space reporter Eric Berger writes, “Boeing decisively lost the commercial crew space race.” The company “was used to spending other people’s money,” he notes. And Boeing’s entrenched bureaucracy stood in the way of efficient engineering. Responsibility for developing software was divided between two teams that didn’t work well together, for example. Starliner’s much-delayed first test flight, an uncrewed mission to the ISS in 2019, went awry soon after launch, failing to reach the space station’s orbit. The cause: an elementary software problem. The failure of that first flight meant that Boeing had to launch—on its own dime—a ruinously expensive second unmanned test flight in 2022. Not surprisingly, Boeing has been forced to take $1.5 billion in charges related to the Starliner program’s many delays and cost overruns.

Now Boeing’s long-awaited space vehicle is safely attached to the ISS for the next week. One hopes that it and its crew will enjoy an uneventful return to Earth. Does this mean that Boeing will become a reliable partner to NASA in the commercial space business? That would be good news. As Garver notes, NASA needs more options when it comes to hiring vendors for future space missions. And SpaceX, dominant though it may be today, would benefit from some real competition. But space is hard, as veterans of the field like to say, and the legacy aerospace companies, like Boeing, that dominated the Apollo, space shuttle, and ISS era of spaceflight will need deep cultural shifts to compete in the new era of entrepreneurial discovery.

Photos: MIGUEL J. RODRIGUEZ CARRILLO/AFP via Getty Images (left) / Brandon Bell/Getty Images (right)


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