Boeing’s Starliner: Challenges and Milestones

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft achieved a significant milestone last week by delivering two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). However, challenges encountered during its journey in space and the obstacles that lie ahead cast doubt on Boeing’s aspirations for routine missions.

The CST-100 Starliner Capsule’s Journey

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule successfully docked with the ISS, marking a crucial safety demonstration for NASA and the emerging private astronaut missions market. However, before Boeing can compete with SpaceX’s dominance in orbital human spaceflight, several test objectives must be met.

The Critical Step of Safety Demonstration

Importance of Successful Human Transport

According to Patricia Sanders, former chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, the successful transportation of human beings to space and their safe return is a critical step for Boeing. Without this demonstration, conducting any missions would be infeasible.

Achievements and Challenges

During its journey to the ISS, Starliner faced challenges, including helium leaks and propulsion failures, leading to a delay in docking. Despite these setbacks, achievements such as manual control tests and autonomous docking showcase progress.

Addressing Concerns and Redesigns

Helium Leaks and Propulsion Failures

While not endangering the astronauts, the helium leaks and propulsion failures raise concerns. Boeing plans to redesign Starliner’s propulsion system valves and batteries, with NASA funding allocated for this purpose.

Costs and Supply Chain Challenges

Boeing’s Starliner development challenges have incurred significant costs, approximately $1.5 billion. Redesigns may be prolonged if Boeing needs to involve its supply chain, reminiscent of previous disputes with propulsion system suppliers.

Comparison with SpaceX

Vertical Integration Advantage

SpaceX’s vertically integrated structure provides an advantage in addressing design flaws and concerns efficiently. Boeing’s challenges highlight the complexities of supply chain involvement in aerospace projects.

NASA Review and Future Considerations

It remains uncertain if the issues encountered during Starliner’s first crewed mission necessitate redesigns. NASA and Boeing will conduct thorough reviews to determine future steps.

Boeing’s Starliner faces both achievements and challenges in its quest for routine missions to space. While the recent milestone of delivering astronauts to the ISS is commendable, addressing technical issues and streamlining operations are imperative for future success.