Boeing's Starliner Delays vs. SpaceX Successes

Boeing's Starliner Delays vs. SpaceX Successes

10/13/20234 min read

boeing starliner
boeing starliner

The Starliner was expected to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for its first crewed test flight no earlier than mid-April 2024, a setback from its previous anticipated readiness date in early March. Furthermore, the target date for the operational flight of the Boeing spacecraft has also been pushed back to early 2025, another delay from its previous summer 2024 target. No specific reason for the delay was shared.

So why is this significant? The Starliner program represents one of NASA's efforts to bring human space travel back to American soil. With a series of delays hindering its progress, however, questions arise about the timelines and potential challenges Boeing may be facing to get Starliner into orbit with a crew on board.

To provide some context, Boeing and SpaceX were selected by NASA in 2014 to offer astronaut transport services to and from the ISS. While SpaceX has successfully launched its seventh operational flight to the ISS, Starliner has made only two launches, both uncrewed. These delays have ramifications not only for Boeing but for NASA's overall mission planning and scheduling.

That said, the Starliner program is still of great interest to space enthusiasts and industry insiders alike. It's seen as an essential part of NASA's broader mission to maintain a continuous human presence in space, alongside other commercial ventures like SpaceX.

The Crew Flight Test (CFT) Delays

Boeing's Starliner was set to debut its astronaut mission, known as the Crew Flight Test (CFT), by sending NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the ISS. However, there have been a number of hold-ups. Technical difficulties have played a significant role in these delays, such as wiring issues and problems with the spacecraft's parachute system.

What makes these technical difficulties particularly noticeable is the contrast with SpaceX's relative smooth sailing. As of August 25, SpaceX has completed its seventh operational flight to the ISS, establishing itself as a reliable partner for NASA. For Boeing, however, each delay raises concerns about their ability to meet NASA's needs and expectations.

It's not just about dates; it's about deliverables. NASA has ambitious plans for space exploration, and a reliable commercial partner is critical for achieving long-term objectives. The question remains whether Boeing can catch up and ensure the Starliner's role in future missions.

These delays also have financial implications. Both Boeing and SpaceX were awarded multi-billion-dollar contracts by NASA back in 2014. Continuous setbacks can affect public and investor perception, potentially impacting the financial health and future prospects of the Starliner program.

The SpaceX Alternative

While Starliner struggles with delays, SpaceX continues to make strides with its Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA has confirmed a mid-February 2024 launch date for SpaceX's Crew-8 mission, with NASA astronauts Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, and Jeanette Epps, along with cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin, set to travel to the ISS.

What’s particularly notable is that three of the four astronauts on the Crew-8 mission will be making their first spaceflight, indicating a high level of confidence NASA places in SpaceX’s capability. This kind of trust is crucial for any commercial partnership, especially in a field as high-stakes as space exploration.

SpaceX also has its Crew-9 mission scheduled for August 2024, shortly before Crew-8's expected return to Earth. Furthermore, the 10th crew rotation mission in early 2025 could either be SpaceX's Crew-10 or Boeing's Starliner-1, depending on several variables, including the success of CFT.

Given SpaceX's consistent performance, they offer NASA an alternative that could carry more weight in future mission planning if Starliner continues to experience delays. The continual advancements from SpaceX could potentially sideline Starliner if it doesn't get its act together soon.

What Lies Ahead for Boeing's Starliner?

Looking forward, Boeing has several challenges to overcome. The NASA release states that the delay allows time for "review of results from CFT, including incorporation of anticipated learning, approvals of final certification products, and completion of readiness and certification reviews ahead of the Starliner-1 mission." In simpler terms, they have a lot of homework to do before they can proceed with the next steps in the program.

This is a pivotal moment for Boeing. The upcoming CFT mission has significant implications for the Starliner program's future. It needs to prove that it can deliver, and that means not just launching but completing a mission successfully. The question isn't just when Starliner will fly, but how well it will perform when it does.

It also places Boeing in a position where they have to manage stakeholder expectations effectively. This includes not just NASA but also the public, investors, and other industry partners. Credibility is hard to gain and easy to lose, especially in an industry as specialized and scrutinized as aerospace.

It is imperative for Boeing to resolve its technical issues and demonstrate reliability in its upcoming tests. Otherwise, the contrast between its track record and SpaceX's achievements could cast a long shadow over the Starliner program.

The Bigger Picture

As we zoom out and look at the overall trends, it becomes clear that commercial space travel is more than just a competition between Boeing and SpaceX. It's about establishing a robust, multi-provider ecosystem that can support NASA’s missions, offer redundancy, and enable future human exploration to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Each setback for Starliner isn’t just a setback for Boeing; it's a challenge for NASA and its broader objectives. Time will tell whether Boeing can turn things around and prove that Starliner is an asset, not a liability, in this grander scheme.

NASA continues to march ahead with its goals, making it crucial for Boeing to catch up if they want to be part of the story that will be written in the stars. With each delay, the narrative tilts slightly more in favor of SpaceX, but competition and choices are essential for progress, making it all the more important for Boeing to step up its game.