Jetstreams & Rocket Dreams Podcast Episode 1

Hello, everyone. Tory here from Overlook Horizon, and I’m thrilled to welcome you to the inaugural episode of the Jetstreams and Rocket Dreams podcast. Today, we’re diving deep into the world of Boeing’s Starliner and addressing a hot topic: Is the criticism towards Boeing justified?

Boeing’s Starliner: A Rocky Journey

In this first episode, I take a close look at the history of Boeing’s Starliner, the Commercial Crew Program, and compare it to SpaceX’s progress. From the initial award of the contracts back in 2014 to the present day, Boeing and SpaceX have taken very different paths.

When NASA first awarded the contracts for the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, a long-time partner with NASA, was expected to lead the way. SpaceX, relatively new to the scene, was seen as a risky choice. Critics were skeptical about SpaceX’s ability to meet NASA’s rigorous safety and certification standards within the proposed timeline.

Fast forward to today, and SpaceX has successfully launched multiple crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS). In contrast, Boeing’s Starliner has faced numerous delays and technical issues. This disparity has fueled much of the criticism directed at Boeing.

Understanding the Criticism

The criticism of Boeing isn’t without reason. Starliner’s first Orbital Flight Test (OFT-1) in 2019 failed to reach the ISS due to a software anomaly. It wasn’t until 2022 that Boeing successfully completed the OFT-2, a crucial step toward crewed missions. Despite these setbacks, it’s essential to recognize the importance of having two providers for crewed missions, ensuring redundancy and competition in the US space program.

The Origins of the Commercial Crew Program

The Commercial Crew Program was initiated to restore the United States’ capability to launch astronauts to the ISS independently following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011—the program aimed to develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew transportation systems.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. Boeing, with its established history in aerospace, was granted $4.2 billion, while SpaceX received $2.6 billion. This decision was influenced by Boeing’s longstanding partnership with NASA and their experience, which was expected to ensure reliability and safety.

SpaceX’s Meteoric Rise

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, was a newcomer with a bold vision. Their proposal was ambitious: faster development at a lower cost. Initially, there was skepticism. How could a relatively young company meet the stringent safety standards and deliver on time?

Despite doubts, SpaceX’s innovative approach and rapid iteration led to significant milestones. The successful Demo-1 mission in March 2019 and the historic Demo-2 mission in May 2020, which carried astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS, marked a new era in commercial spaceflight. As of now, SpaceX has completed multiple crewed missions, showcasing their reliability and efficiency.

Boeing’s Challenges

Boeing, on the other hand, faced several hurdles. The OFT-1 mission in December 2019 encountered a software issue that prevented the Starliner from docking with the ISS. This failure was a major setback, leading to a thorough review and necessitating a second uncrewed test flight, OFT-2, which finally succeeded in May 2022.

These delays have been costly, both financially and reputationally, for Boeing. The extended timeline has drawn criticism, especially compared to SpaceX’s rapid progress. However, it’s important to understand the broader context.

The Importance of Two Providers

Having two providers for crewed missions is a strategic decision. It ensures that the US has multiple pathways to access space, reducing dependency on a single provider. This redundancy is crucial for national security and maintaining a consistent presence in space.

The Upcoming CFT Mission

The Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled for May 21, 2024 May 25, 2024. This mission will see astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Sunita “Suni” Williams onboard. They aim to demonstrate the Starliner’s capability to safely transport crew to and from the ISS. This mission is crucial for Boeing to prove their reliability and secure their position as a viable partner in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Wilmore and Williams, both seasoned astronauts, bring extensive experience to this mission. Their presence underscores the importance and the high stakes of the CFT. A successful mission will pave the way for regular operational missions, ensuring Boeing’s continued role in the Commercial Crew Program.

Comparing Starliner and SpaceX

SpaceX’s approach, particularly their “load and go” method, has been controversial but effective. They strap astronauts in, arm the launch escape system, and then fuel the rocket. This method, initially criticized for safety concerns, now seems advantageous because it allows the launch escape system to be armed during the fueling process.

On the other hand, Boeing’s method involves fueling the rocket before the astronauts board. This traditional approach has its merits, but it also means any issues during fueling can lead to delays and scrubs.

The difference in these methods highlights the innovative risk-taking of SpaceX and the cautious, established procedures of Boeing. Both have their strengths and having both approaches ensures a balanced and robust crewed spaceflight program.

Boeing’s Response to Criticism

Boeing has acknowledged the challenges and criticisms but remains committed to delivering a safe and reliable spacecraft. While costly, the delays and additional tests reflect their dedication to ensuring the highest safety standards.

The recent issues, such as the pressure regulation valve and helium leak detected just before the scheduled May 6 launch, are part of the rigorous safety checks that ensure no corners are cut. These are typical in the final stages of preparing a new spacecraft for crewed missions.

The Broader Implications

In this episode, I also discuss the broader implications of having two providers for crewed missions. While SpaceX has been incredibly successful, maintaining competition and having a backup option is vital for national security and the advancement of space exploration.

The initial criticism of SpaceX’s ability to meet safety standards has been disproven, but Boeing’s experience and proven track record are still invaluable. The competition between Boeing and SpaceX drives innovation, improves safety, and reduces costs, ultimately benefiting the entire space industry.

Looking Ahead

As we approach the CFT mission on May 21, 2024 May 25, 2024, the stakes are high. Success will solidify Boeing’s role in the Commercial Crew Program and demonstrate the benefits of having multiple providers. A successful mission will not only validate the Starliner but also highlight the importance of resilience and perseverance in space exploration.

I conclude with my thoughts on whether the criticism towards Boeing is justified. While some criticism is warranted due to their delays and technical issues, it’s also important to recognize the benefits of having two competing providers. The path to space is never straightforward, and each setback is a step towards greater achievements.

Join the Conversation

I hope you enjoyed this casual conversation about Boeing’s Starliner and the Commercial Crew Program. Listen to the full episode for more insights and detailed discussion.

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Let’s explore the skies and beyond together. Thanks for joining me on this journey. See you in the next episode!