Boeing takes backup role in flying NASA astronauts

Boeing’s crew transportation vehicle drives across NASA’s Kennedy Space Center carrying astronauts Suni Williams and Barry Wilmore during a prelaunch simulation on Jan. 31, 2024.

Amber Jean Notvest / NASA

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Overview: Boeing the backup

I don’t know how many times I’ve written something along the lines of “NASA’s Commercial Crew program is competitive” over the years, but those days are gone.

Boeing’s Starliner program finally feels close to flying people in space for the first time. Now slated to carry astronauts to the ISS in May, Boeing was once seen as neck-and-neck with SpaceX. It was originally planned to launch this crew flight test in November 2018.

Almost two years later, Starliner’s precursor test flight had gone awry – but NASA and Boeing’s messaging focused on “we’ll fix it and be flying soon!” 

Well, it took more than two years to fly a re-do test flight. A year after that I tried to contextualize expectations and wondered where the sense of urgency was. And another year brings us to today.

On the eve of flying crew, Boeing’s messaging is now closer to “NASA wants us as backup and we’re not committing beyond that.” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the main talking point this past week as agency leadership explained why Starliner is still useful.

That’s understandable, given how much money Boeing has eaten already (and likely will continue to eat, since “risk remains that we may record additional losses in future periods”). But it’s also unfortunate, as it seems unlikely Starliner will fly more than the six NASA missions that Boeing’s under contract for. Non-NASA missions, too, seem like an afterthought, unlike the multiple private flights completed by SpaceX’s Dragon in just the first few years since it started flying people.

The additionally unfortunate aspect of this situation is that none of these years of setbacks and cost overruns seem to have lit a fire under Boeing’s space management. In the recent press conference, Boeing’s Starliner VP Mark Nappi had this to say about watching SpaceX fly astronauts for the last four years:

“I don’t call it frustrating at all. I think we would like to have been further along at this time, there’s no doubt about that,” Nappi said.

Human spaceflight is a small market within the broader space industry, but a hugely significant one when it comes to the future of companies building space stations and moon bases and more. Hopefully another company like Sierra Space or Blue Origin takes the crew vehicle competition to SpaceX. 

Boeing, not frustrated after falling years behind, certainly won’t.

What’s up

Industry maneuvers

Market movers

Boldly going

  • Amish Patel hired as COO by Sierra Space, joining the company from Rocket Lab where he was the vice president of global supply chain. – Sierra Space
  • Hillary Coe hired by Vast as chief marketing and design officer, joining the company after previous design roles at SpaceX, Google, and Apple. – Vast
  • Clay Mowry appointed as an advisor to Vast, having previously been Voyager Space’s chief revenue officer. – Vast
  • Lon Ensler made interim CFO of Momentus after the departure of Eric Williams, who resigned after less than a year in the role. Ensler’s experience is from outside the space industry, but he has a string of senior finance executive roles. – Momentus
  • Tami Erwin, former CEO of Verizon Business, joins Skylo board as a director. Erwin joins the satellite communications startup’s board that includes SoftBank’s Alex Fortmüller, DCM’s David Chao, Intel Capital’s Dave Johnson, Innovation Endeavors’ Scott Brady, and Skylo CEO Parth Trivedi. – Skylo 

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On the horizon

  • Mar. 28: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from California.
  • Mar. 30: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Eutelsat 36D mission from Florida.
  • Mar. 30: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.

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