SpaceX is going to have its eyes skyward more than usual tonight. Indeed, Boeing is about to make its 2nd OFT, an orbital test.
Sometimes the most important thing to know if your business will continue to function is not so much the innovations that you bring, but the actions (or inactions) of the competition. In this area SpaceX is a model of its kind. Authorized since 2020 to carry out manned missions to the ISS on behalf of NASA, Elon Musk’s company has already succeeded 7 times thanks to its Crew Dragon capsule, but bad news, SpaceX’s monopoly could be finish tonight.
NASA wants two different capsules to go to the ISS
Indeed, NASA, when it works with private companies, always tries 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, no one is grounded. This was the case in the call for tenders for the lunar lander (HLS), but for lack of budget Blue Origin was rejected.
But this NASA strategy also applies to manned flights to the ISS. The American space agency has always encouraged competition and continues to do so by proposing to Boeing to enter the dance. The company, better known for its planes, therefore also began to build a capsule, capable of joining the ISS and transporting astronauts to the latter.
If the project was launched in 2019, just like that of SpaceX, Boeing had all the trouble in the world to carry out its OFT (Orbital Flight Test) configuration and verification flights requested by NASA to ensure that everything went well. good. And in the case of Boeing, the least we can say is that nothing was going well.
A first failure in December 2019
During the first OFT carried out by the company, the capsule’s internal clock was faulty, which accelerated the start-up of the thrusters and emptied the fuel tanks, before the rocket was on the right trajectory. Running out of energy, she was unable to reach the ISS and fell back two days later, passing very close to her service module and crashing spectacularly.
This first flight was therefore a great failure for Boeing, where at the same time SpaceX received congratulations from NASA, and a first contract to the ISS. But after a long internal investigation, lasting more than a year, Boeing was allowed by NASA to try its luck again, in August 2021. It had to be shown that OFT-1 was just a simple little mistake, and that NASA could count on Starliner to reach the ISSas it was already doing at the time with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
But again, Boeing failed. Blame it on a problem in the valves of the rocket boosters. Second failure therefore for Boeing in as many attempts. After days of doubts, Starliner returns to the factory to be modified and improved. Finally, it took until May 20, 2022 for the Boeing capsule to recover on the launch pad.
Boeing: never two without three?
This time it’s the right one, we are assured by Boeing. A serenity that only seems to be a facade, the problem with the valves of the thrusters not having been completely resolved. Be that as it may, it is tonight, around midnight French time, that the Atlas V rocket, with the Starliner capsule at its top, should take off for a mission that will have cost the tidy sum of 590 million dollars to Boeing.
Already struggling in the air with its 737 MaxBoeing could therefore lose half a billion dollars in the operation if the flight were to go wrong, for the third time in as many attempts.
On the side of SpaceX, this mission is obviously followed very closely. If Elon Musk is not expected to pull out his phone to tweet his congratulations to Boeing, he will inevitably have an eye on the competition, he who risks having to share NASA’s very profitable contract with other other companies in the future.