Former NASA leaders have praised Boeing’s willingness to risk commercial crew

Zoom / Politically speaking, the Boeing spacecraft has done much of the heavy lifting for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

United Launch Alliance

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

Boeing’s defense sector has not fared a little better. After winning a major military refueling contract, Boeing began production of the KC-46 tanker for the Air Force. But due to manufacturing and design problems with the tanker, the company took About $5 billion in losses during the past decade.

Finally, there’s Boeing’s aerospace unit, which has struggled to adapt to the new era of commercial space and fixed-price contracts. Most obviously, 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 have not gone well. Boeing has been around three years behind SpaceX, which has now launched five manned missions for NASA.

space setbacks

By contrast, Boeing Face technical setbacks With the flight program and valves in the Starliner spacecraft’s propulsion system. On Thursday, the company will attempt to launch a test mission — a second unmanned test flight of a Starliner aimed at docking the spacecraft to the International Space Station. Due to the need to re-fly this test mission after the first mission failed in 2019, Boeing . has taken more than Half a billion dollars in losses.

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It now appears that it is possible, if not likely, that Boeing may have lost money on its commercial crew program, for which NASA has paid $5.1 billion since 2010. One sign that Boeing may seek to cut costs surfaced last week during an aerospace meeting The safety advisory body, when member David West raised concerns that Boeing was not putting enough resources into the Starliner development and testing campaign.

“The committee has noted that staffing levels at Boeing appear to be particularly low,” West said. “The Committee will monitor the situation in the near future for the impact, if any, that it could have on the presence or mitigation of any safety risks. Boeing must ensure that all available resources are applied to meet the reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays.”

It would be easy to dismiss Boeing as an old space airline that can’t keep up with newer and smarter competitors like SpaceX. But in fact, Boeing’s efforts to compete played an important role in the rise of SpaceX.

More than a decade ago, at the start of the Commercial Crew Program, NASA asked Congress for $500 million as part of the fiscal year 2021 budget. Recently, two senior NASA officials said the program would not have taken off at all had Boeing not entered the competition. Along with SpaceX and other smaller companies.

Boeing, the hero?

“I don’t think we’d be anywhere with a commercial crew without Boeing getting into the fray,” said Charlie Bolden, who served as NASA Administrator from 2009 to 2017. During the Aviation Week webinar. “Nobody likes SpaceX, quite frankly, on Hill. It was an unknown amount. I think if Boeing had chosen to stay away from the commercial crew, we might not have gotten funding for it.”

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However, once Boeing entered the competition, Bolden said, congressional attitudes began to change. He credits Boeing for seizing the opportunity to secure a fixed-price contract, which was relatively new to NASA at the time. The contract method meant that instead of getting reimbursed for all of its expenses plus fees, Boeing could lose money if there were technical delays or setbacks.

“Boeing was a dream,” Bolden said. “I call them heroes in their willingness to accept the risk of a program whose business case was not closed at the time. And I’ll be honest. I don’t know if the business case will be closed today.”

The space agency’s deputy director at the time, Laurie Garver, echoed Bolden’s ideas. speaking last week At the Ars Frontier . Conference In Washington, D.C., Garver said Congress was “furious” when the Obama administration sought funding for the commercial crew in 2010.

“Boeing getting into the commercial crew program means you get a lot of support from Congress because they tend to have a very strong lobbying program,” Garver said. “I was very happy when Boeing offered the traditional aerospace industry. Because I think that was a tough call. And I think if they look back, they won’t do it again.”

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