Boeing’s Successful Starliner Flight Test: And Then??

Boeing and NASA completed Orbital Flight Test-2 of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule this last Wednesday. 

For NASA, the successful test was significant. Sure, Starliner provides an alternative transport capability to the International Space Station (ISS). But the test’s success demonstrates that NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is producing advertised results–two crew transportation capsules from two companies without much of the overruns (but not entirely on schedule) associated with other, more traditionally-managed, NASA programs.

For Boeing–it’s not clear how significant the test’s success is. Surely the success represents a way out of the nightmare of mounting embarrassment (largely of the company’s own making). It’s probably not happy that what should have been another pure moneymaker for Boeing turned into a drain in its revenues. Embarrassment and money-losing don’t necessarily add up to the company being willing to invest more in the program. However, the success probably allows the company’s management to be a bit more confident in the engineers and funds used to “fix” Starliner since the last failed test in late 2019. The past two years were probably the starkest demonstration of the operating differences and priorities between Boeing and the other CCP competitor, SpaceX.

Rocket Squeeze

With the test “re-do” out of the way and Boeing seemingly on a path to safely launch Starliner with people aboard, what’s next? Can Boeing use Starliner the way SpaceX does to transport people for commercial fun and profit? It potentially could, but likely won’t. The following is based on the assumption that Boeing would like to be done with Starliner instead of investing extra time and funds into design changes (which may or may not be trivial). 

While NASA’s CCP has the word “commercial” in it, the crewed missions scheduled for Boeing and SpaceX are civil (NASA is paying them), not commercial (for example, if Axiom were paying). SpaceX certainly has conducted a few commercial crewed launches outside of the CCP, but I suspect that similar commercial launches using Starliner will not happen. The biggest reason for my suspicion is not any problem with Boeing’s capsule but everything to do with Starliner’s chosen ride to orbit: the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Boeing remains on the hook for seven crewed missions using a Starliner capsule. Each of those missions requires an Atlas V rocket, as noted in a SpaceNews article:

“…NASA and ULA officials said that all the remaining Starliner missions under contract, including CFT and the six post-certification missions, would remain on Atlas 5 regardless of schedule.”

The problem is, there will be no more Atlas V rockets available for additional Starliner missions. ULA announced last year that it would be retiring the Atlas V sometime during the middle of this decade. That announcement pretty much means that Starliner gets used seven times for NASA’s ISS missions and then is put to pasture. There will be no truly commercial missions using Starliner. Considering how much work and money went into the capsule’s making, it’s a little disheartening to think about that scenario.

CCP Worked!?

The Starliner’s impending success as a crew vehicle demonstrates that perhaps NASA’s reasons for needing more than one company to transport people to and from the ISS were well-founded. After all, imagine if NASA had selected Boeing only for CCP: there’s no way the space agency would have been able to back away from its Soyuz addiction since Starliner isn’t available yet. But the fact there are only seven remaining launches underscores that perhaps NASA didn’t choose enough candidates for CCP. 

One of the reasons why NASA wanted more than one CCP company was redundancy. If one company’s spacecraft couldn’t be deployed, NASA could always tap the other company to take the former company’s place. But the situation with the Atlas V shows that was only a cursory consideration. While Starliner received much of the scrutiny, it doesn’t appear as if ULA’s Atlas V and its future availability underwent similar deep reviews. ULA’s Russian engine reliance (and Congress’ mandate to wean itself away from that reliance) should have clued NASA in on possible changes to the Atlas V’s future.

The result is that after seven crewed Starliner launches, NASA will find itself in the situation it is in currently: reliant on SpaceX for astronaut transportation to the ISS. Based on some of the potential plans for the ISS, maybe that doesn’t matter. 

Does Starliner’s short operational existence mean, then, that NASA’s CCP is a failure? It depends on what the space agency meant with the word “reliable.” NASA’s CCP goal is: 

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) was formed to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit.

With SpaceX, CCP seems to have hit all three targets. It appears safe, reliable, and cost-effective. But if, by reliability, NASA also includes redundancy, then the program was only two-thirds successful in achieving its goal. Having a different launch system that can only provide seven flights to the ISS crew launch manifest adds little to no redundancy. Maybe NASA can learn from this and tweak the next version of CCP based on the lessons learned from its current batch.

Better than the Alternative

What seems to be clear, though, is that the addition of Starliner to NASA’s ISS transportation options will not precipitate a sudden increase in commercially-focused space missions. It certainly will not contribute to the commercial side of the global space economy. The lack of rockets to launch Starliner more than what is specified in the contract, and Boeing’s apparent reticence to add its resources to allow that to happen makes its commercial future unlikely. It’s also weird to understand that, unlike SpaceX, Boeing will probably not iterate Starliner. There’s no incentive for it to do so. 

Based on current plans and obligations, the only likely destiny is that Starliner will go to the Smithsonian while Crew Dragon continues going to orbit. The billions NASA poured into Starliner seems like a lot to pay for what will ultimately become static displays. Unless Boeing and ULA work something out with the Vulcan rocket (but nothing has been publicly announced about that potential).

CCP as a concept is a success, but as executed…it’s still better than the alternative? We all know what would have happened if NASA had taken on building its rockets the way Congress is comfortable with–because we have the Space Launch System (SLS–which was conceived much earlier than CCP). While NASA continues providing justifications for cost and schedule additions for SLS, it’s also launched astronauts to the ISS using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (with, unusually, very few cost increases). It looks like NASA may even begin to use Boeing’s extremely late Starliner for human transportation before SLS. 

Even with just seven crewed launches, Starliner’s accumulated cost would be a bargain when compared to the one, maybe two, SLS launches that might happen in our lifetimes. That, however short the result, is a success.

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