Boeing’s Starliner, a spacecraft designed by Boeing, safely landed in New Mexico on Wednesday evening. After a nearly seven-week trip to the International Space Station, the vehicle returned to Earth. This historic journey was the first private American company to successfully reach the ISS.
Boeing spent many years working on a capsule capable of carrying humans to the station. It could accomplish that next mission, which is scheduled to take place later in the year. The only passenger on the Starliner was Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin. If Boeing can successfully replicate the mission, it will be the second US spacecraft to become certified to transport astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the only American spacecraft that has done this (although the US has occasionally sent astronauts on its Soyuz rocket to the ISS).
Space plays an increasingly important role in daily life, be it through satellite internet or space tourism. This is a significant milestone in the competition for commercial space. This is a significant step forward for those who worry that space’s future depends too heavily on one company controlled by Elon Musk.
Recode spoke with Namrata Goswami who is an independent scholar on space policy. He said that SpaceX was once seen in the past as a new actor in space, but that today it’s so dominant you can see it’s a legacy player.” “NASA collaborated closely with Boeing on the commercial crew program because it was afraid that if one company is dependent on you, you could be in trouble if something goes wrong.”
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NASA remains dependent on SpaceX for now. Although the Starliner mission this week to the ISS was a success, Boeing still needs to address several issues before it launches its next launch. The capsule was carried by an Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance, Boeing’s partnership with Lockheed Martin. Two of its thrusters failed to function before the capsule took off. This meant that the vehicle could rely upon backups.
Starliner’s cooling system was also faulty, as well as problems with its software, components, and sensors. This caused Starliner to delay docking with the ISS for over an hour. Boeing claims that all of these problems can be resolved and NASA will certify Starliner to travel to the ISS if necessary. The company could then launch its own space taxi service and compete with SpaceX to win contracts for the agency’s space missions. This would allow astronauts to visit ISS more frequently and could lower the cost of travel to space.
NASA has been working on a plan for years to avoid becoming a space monopoly. The US government was unable to travel to the ISS without the Space Shuttle program being retired by the agency in 2011. This meant that it was completely dependent on Russia to get there. NASA decided to change its approach to solve the problem and turn to the private sector for replacements. The space agency revealed in 2014 that it had hired Boeing to build its own space capsules. These capsules would be ready to carry astronauts within three to five years. It made the deliberate decision to invest in two different types of companies. Boeing was a long-standing aerospace contractor and partner in NASA projects such as the ISS, and the Apollo lunar mission. SpaceX was a young space startup. It was a new NASA partnership that represented the future commercial space industry.
Both companies had no vehicle ready for 2017 and faced problems with their landing parachutes, launch abort system, and other issues. SpaceX was able to successfully transport human astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020. However, Boeing struggled with Starliner’s design. During the vehicle’s first flight in 2019, Boeing discovered a serious software problem that could have caused a catastrophic failure in space. Officials also had to cancel plans to dock the capsule with the ISS. Boeing had to postpone a second test in October last year after discovering a problem with Starliner’s propulsion systems just hours before launch. NASA is determined to see Starliner succeed with a manned mission.
“If you have only one, you can get stuck into that situation whereby you might end up spending a lot of money because no one is competing for the business. It’s extremely expensive,” said Cristina Chaplain, a former space analyst who reviewed space programs for Government Accountability Office. It’s important to keep costs low and having that level of competition is the best way to do so.
NASA has made this a conscious effort. NASA has assumed the responsibility of encouraging competition in the space industry by inviting multiple companies to compete for lucrative contracts. This has made the agency’s efforts to explore further into space much more cost-effective. This includes NASA’s mission to return to the moon, Artemis. The agency uses this strategy to begin the replacement of the ISS. This is expected to occur around 2030. NASA has approved preliminary funding for at least four space station concepts. These include proposals from Northrop Grumman (an aerospace and military contractor for decades) and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s startup in space.
Although it may seem far-fetched to many people, the commercial space race is not. Space launch competition is already having an impact on satellite-based services such as GPS, weather tracking, and internet services. SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and SpaceX’s Starlink are just two examples of the many. All of these technologies are now more easily accessible as more companies can launch them. The cost of sending one pound of payload into space has dropped by an order of magnitude since the Space Shuttle program ended. This could increase as more companies launch satellites. Aside from well-known companies such as SpaceX, and Arianespace (the long-standing French launch provider), there are a growing number of startups that can send satellites into space. These include Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic.
William Kovacic, a George Washington University Professor of Law, said that competition in the space sector has “a profound impact on all data transmissions, voice transmissions, and global positioning.” If there is no innovation or improvements in performance and if the launch vehicle providers are unable to place satellites at the right places, then competition in this system will fail. This can have a significant ripple effect on the economy.
The fear of a space monopoly in the future is no different from what we are afraid of here on Earth. It’s possible for future competitors to be excluded from space if one company has too much control of the market in space and its tech is too advanced. SpaceX could be the company that has the most influence on how people use space resources and visit it.
These stakes are almost impossible to imagine. Space companies don’t just shape how humans will explore Mars and the moon. Space companies are shaping technology that we use every single day, whether it’s internet services or new products. If history is any guide, Monopolies are often bad. It’s not a good idea to make humanity’s ventures off-planet dependent upon one. Starliner’s launch represents a step in the right direction to ensure that this is not what happens.