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Starliner Season

This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extra-terrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Boeing’s big day, NASA’s budget, and eating crickets on Mars. (Programming note: Space business will be on vacation on Dec. 26 and Jan.1)

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Early tomorrow, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is expected to lift off on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station.

The trip is the culmination of eight years of work by Boeing and NASA in the commercial crew program. That effort aims to create a privately-operated transportation service to the International Space Station. SpaceX, the other participant in the program, flew its uncrewed test flight in Feb. 2019.

By the numbers, space is hardly the most important business for Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company by market capitalization. In 2018, the company earned $60 billion selling commercial airplanes, and just $23 billion from its “defense, space and security” segment, much of which likely came from the defense and security businesses.

For that reason alone, I didn’t think the Starliner test flight would be important for the company writ large. Vital to NASA, the private space sector, even the future of the space program, yes, but not to Boeing. Now, I think the company could really use some good news.

Consider:

🛬 This week, Boeing announced it would halt production of its best-selling 737 Max as the company struggles to satisfy regulators that the plane, a culprit in two deadly crashes, is safe enough to fly.

⛽️ It is still struggling to deliver the KC-46 tanker to the US Air Force after years of technical problems that have forced the company to pay for more than $1.9 billion in cost overages.

👨‍🏭 Problems at the production plant for its 787 Dreamliner passenger jet led one engineer to turn whistleblower and spur a federal investigation.

💸 In August, the Pentagon cancelled a contract for a new missile interceptor, citing technical problems after spending $1.2 billion on the project.

🤯 In July, Boeing dropped out of the bidding to make new US nuclear missiles, saying the procurement was too focused on cost.

🌜In June, the company faced scathing reviews of its work on the delayed Space Launch System for NASA, which led to the ouster of a long-time NASA executive.

To be sure, Boeing continues to keep the International Space Station operating, and with the exception of the Max its fleet of passenger aircraft continue service around the world. But it’s been many years since Boeing delivered a working product, on-time and on-budget.

Decisions about how to build the 737 Max suggest that the company is letting financial concerns play too large a role in its engineering work, a development often traced by long-time employees to Boeing’s combination with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. They also point to a worrying coziness with federal regulators charged with ensuring that its planes are safe.

Are there similar conflicts in the space division? One recent independent audit (pdf) of the commercial crew program found that NASA had overpaid Boeing by $187 million after their supposedly fixed-price contract was settled. Both parties dispute the analysis.

When it comes to safety, NASA ordered both SpaceX and Boeing to conduct safety reviews after Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, took a puff of a marijuana cigarette while recording a podcast in 2018.

It was a silly reason for a company-wide safety assessment, but only one firm appeared to take it seriously. SpaceX requested an additional $5 million from NASA, which it used to perform a holistic review, interviewing employees across the company on top of its regular safety audits. Boeing asked for $25 million to perform the review. NASA didn’t grant it. As a result, the company gave access to safety documentation already required by its contract and granted NASA “a limited number of interviews with company personnel.”

Thus far, Boeing’s reputation has protected it from the kind of intense scrutiny facing brash newcomers like SpaceX. But, while a good brand is invaluable, it collapses gradually—then suddenly.

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Imagery Interlude

We love a space capsule! A brief history of America’s favorite stubby spacecraft design, starting with John Glenn’s Mercury capsule in 1962…

Image copyright: NASA

…two Gemini capsules on the USS Wasp after being recovered in 1965…

…the Apollo 11 capsule being recovered from the sea…

Image copyright: NASA

…SpaceX’s cargo  Dragon spacecraft preparing for its flight in 2012…

Image copyright: NASA

…Boeing’s Starliner about to be mounted on a rocket for its flight tomorrow.

Image copyright: NASA

 

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SPACE DEBRIS

NASA budget. Congress has come up with the US space agency’s final spending rubric for the rest of fiscal year 2020. It passed the House this week. A vote is expected soon in the Senate. Unsurprisingly, the bill grants less than half of the funding NASA requested for its Artemis program to return to the moon by 2024. It includes additional restrictions on that spending until NASA comes up with a lunar-landing plan. The biggest shortfall is in money to build a vehicle to carry astronauts down to the lunar surface.

Good for Gerst. The National Space Foundation awarded the 2020 Goddard trophy to William Gerstenmaier, the NASA lifer who was forced out of a leadership role this summer due to delays facing the Artemis program. Gerst, as he is known, gained widespread respect while running the agency’s human exploration directorate for nearly a decade, bridging the gap between the space shuttle program and the new mode of public-private partnerships in low-earth orbit. He also posed for a portrait in my favorite NASA style in 1978. (He’s on the left.)

Image copyright: NASA

More pads! Rocket Lab, not yet satisfied with its private spaceport in New Zealand and NASA’ s Goddard Space Fight Center in Virginia, says it will add a second launchpad in New Zealand. That gives it three different places to fly its Electron rocket. Developing a launch pad is more than just pouring concrete; rockets need complex plumbing for their propellants, electrical power connections and communications relays, plus safety gear for the people involved. The expense of such an investment is a bullish sign, suggesting the company is confident it will have plenty of payloads to fly in the years ahead.

More SAR! Capella Space, a San Francisco venture-backed start-up building synthetic aperture radar satellites (say that five times fast), says it is now fully-funded to launch a seven satellite constellation in 2020. The firm hopes its high-resolution radar satellites will prove attractive to customers of remote-sensing data. Various agencies of the US government, at least, have signed up for Capella’s service. I’m very curious to see what kind of data their satellites produce; unlike competitors like the European firm ICEYE, Capella has yet to release any samples collected by their Denali satellite.

Mars Colonization Update. The latest study to consider whether humans could actually live on Mars for any length of time focuses on food production, and finds that cricket farms may produce the key food for future Martian colonists. I’m here for it!

Your pal,

Tim

This was issue 28 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send any general concerns about safety, best holiday recipe featuring crickets, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com. If you enjoy this newsletter, take 50% off becoming a Quartz member.

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