SpaceX will be having its eyes higher than usual tonight. In fact, Boeing will do its 2nd OFT, an orbital test.
Sometimes the most important thing to know if your business is to continue to work is not the innovations you bring, but the actions (or inactions) of the competition. In this area, the SpaceX is a model of its kind. Permitted since 2020 to conduct manned missions to the ISS on behalf of NASA, Elon Musk’s company has succeeded 7 times thanks to its Crew Dragon capsule, but bad news, the SpaceX monopoly may end tonight.
NASA wants two different capsules to go to the ISS
In fact, NASA, when it works with private companies, is always trying to have two companies capable of providing the same service. This avoids putting all the eggs in one basket, so if one of the capsules has a problem, nothing is grounded. This was the case with the call for tenders for the lunar lander (HLS), but due to lack of budget Blue Origin was rejected.
But this NASA technique also applies to manned flights to the ISS. The American space agency has always encouraged competition and continues to do so by suggesting Boeing enter the dance. The company, better known for its planes, therefore also began to develop a capsule, capable of joining the ISS and delivering astronauts eventually.
If the project was launched in 2019, as at SpaceX, Boeing would have had all the trouble in the world to perform the OFT (Orbital Flight Test) configuration and flight verification requested by NASA to make sure everything was in order. And in the case of Boeing, the least we can say is nothing went well.
An initial failure in December 2019
In the first OFT conducted by the company, the capsule’s internal clock was faulty, which accelerated the start of the thrusters and emptied the fuel tanks, before the rocket was on the correct trajectory. Running out of energy, he did not reach the ISS and returned two days later, very close to his service module and very good at crashing it.
This first flight was therefore a huge failure for Boeing, where at the same time SpaceX received congratulations from NASA, and an initial contract with the ISS. But after a lengthy internal investigation, which lasted more than a year, NASA allowed Boeing to try its luck again, in August 2021. It needs to be shown that the OFT-1 was only a simple small mistake, and reliable by NASA. Starliner to reach the ISS, as it used to do with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
But again, Boeing failed. Blame it on a problem with the valves of the rocket boosters. Second failure therefore for Boeing in many attempts. After days of doubt, the Starliner returned to the factory to change and improve. Finally, it took until May 20, 2022 for the Boeing capsule to recover from the launch pad.
Boeing: never two without three?
This time it was right, Boeing assured us. A silence that seemed only a facade, the problem with thruster valves had not yet been fully resolved. Yet, tonight, around midnight French time, that Atlas V rocket, with a Starliner capsule on top of it, is due to fly for a mission that will cost Boeing well worth 590 million dollars.
Already an airborne problem with its 737 Max, Boeing could lose half a billion dollars in operation if the flight goes wrong, for the third time in multiple tests.
On the SpaceX side, this mission is clearly being strictly followed. If Elon Musk unexpectedly releases his phone to tweet his congratulations to Boeing, he will surely notice the competition, he who has threatened to share NASA’s highly lucrative contract with other companies in the future.