Former NASA executives praise Boeing’s willingness to risk commercial crew

Former NASA executives praise Boeing’s willingness to risk commercial crew

Politically, the Boeing spacecraft has done a lot of work for NASA's commercial crew program.
Enlarge / Politically, the Boeing spacecraft has done a lot of work for NASA’s commercial crew program.

United Launch Alliance

The past few years have been quite difficult for the Boeing Company. Its latest generation of 737 aircraft, the Max, was grounded in 2019 after two fatal crashes. And following a series of poor management decisions, the company continued to lose market share in commercial aircraft to European multinational Airbus.

Boeing’s defense segment fared little better. After winning a major military refueling contract, Boeing began producing the KC-46 tanker for the Air Force. But due to issues with the tanker’s manufacturing and design, the company has suffered losses of around $5 billion over the past decade.

Finally, there’s Boeing’s space unit, which has struggled to adapt to the new era of commercial space and fixed-price contracts. Most visibly, Boeing has competed directly with SpaceX over the past decade in the commercial crew program to deliver NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. So far, things haven’t gone very well. Boeing is about three years behind SpaceX, which has now launched five crewed missions for NASA.

Reverse of space

In contrast, Boeing has faced technical setbacks with the Starliner spacecraft’s flight software and propulsion system valves. On Thursday, the company will attempt to launch a recovery mission – a second uncrewed Starliner test flight intended to dock the spacecraft with the International Space Station. Due to the need to refly this test mission after the failure of the first in 2019, Boeing suffered more than half a billion dollars in losses.

It now looks possible, if not likely, that Boeing lost money on the commercial crew program, which NASA has paid it $5.1 billion for since 2010. A sign that Boeing may be looking to cut costs emerged last week at a meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee, when member David West raised concerns that Boeing was not devoting enough resources to the development and testing campaign from Starliner.

“The panel noted that Boeing’s staffing levels appear to be particularly low,” West said. “The panel will be monitoring the situation in the near future to see what impact, if any, this may have on the existence or mitigation of any safety risk. Boeing must ensure that all available resources are applied to comply a reasonable schedule and avoid delays.”

It would be easy to dismiss Boeing as an incumbent aerospace company that cannot keep pace with newer, more nimble competitors such as SpaceX. But in reality, Boeing’s efforts to compete have played a big role in SpaceX’s rise.

Over a decade ago, at the start of the Commercial Crew Program, NASA asked Congress for $500 million as part of its fiscal year 2011 budget. Recently, two senior NASA officials said that the program would never have started had Boeing not competed alongside SpaceX and other smaller companies.

Boeing, the champ?

“I don’t think we’d be anywhere with commercial crew if it weren’t for Boeing entering the fray,” Charlie Bolden, who served as NASA administrator from 2009 to 2017, said in a Week webinar. of aviation. “Nobody likes SpaceX, to be quite honest, on the Hill. They were an unknown quantity. I think if Boeing had chosen to stay out of commercial crew, we probably never would have gotten funding for it.”

However, Bolden said, as soon as Boeing entered the competition, attitudes in Congress began to change. And he credits Boeing for taking a chance on a fixed-price contract, which was relatively new for NASA at the time. The contractual method meant that instead of being reimbursed for all of its expenses plus fees, Boeing could lose money in the event of delays or technical setbacks.

“Boeing was a dream,” Bolden said. “I call them a champion for being willing to accept the risk of a program that didn’t have the business case closed at the time. And I’m going to be blunt. I don’t know if the business case ends today.”

Bolden’s thoughts were echoed by the space agency’s deputy administrator at the time, Lori Garver. Speaking last week at the Ars Frontier conference in Washington, DC, Garver said Congress was “furious” when the Obama administration sought commercial crew funding in 2010.

“Boeing’s entry into the commercial crew program meant you got a lot more support from Congress, because they tend to have a very strong lobbying program,” Garver said. “I was very happy when the big traditional aerospace company Boeing made an offer. Because I think it was a tough call. And I think if they thought about it again, they wouldn’t do it again.”

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