What SpaceX, Boeing and NASA have revealed about competition in space – Reuters

The Starliner, a space capsule designed by Boeing, landed safely in the New Mexico desert on Wednesday evening. The car returned to Earth after a nearly week-long journey on the International Space Station. The trip went down in history, as it was the first time that a private American company called SpaceX had successfully reached the ISS.

Boeing has spent the last few years trying to build a capsule that could take people to the space station. And that’s what he can do on his next mission, scheduled for the end of this year (the only Starliner passenger at the time was a model named Rosie the Rocketer). If Boeing is able to successfully rebuild the mission with human passengers on board, it will become the second U.S. spacecraft certified to carry astronauts to the ISS. The SpaceX crew dragon is the only U.S. spacecraft to have done so (the U.S. occasionally sent astronauts to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz rocket).

Space is playing an increasingly active role in everyday life, through the rise of space tourism or the satellite Internet. This makes the moment a milestone for competition in the commercial aerospace industry. This is an important step for anyone worried that the future of space is already dependent on a company, which is largely controlled by Elon Musk.

“SpaceX was once considered a new space player, but today it is so influential that you can see it is a legacy player,” Namrata Goswami, an independent space policy expert, told Rekod. “NASA has worked with Boeing on the commercial crew program because of the concern that if you rely on only one company, you could run into problems if something goes wrong.”

For now, NASA still relies on SpaceX. Although the Starliner mission to the ISS has been successful this week, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed before Boeing’s next launch. After the capsule – which was carried by an Atlas V rocket made by the United Launch Alliance, Boeing’s partnership with Lockheed Martin – was lifted, its two thrusters shut down prematurely, forcing the car to rely on backup.

There were also problems with the Starliner’s cooling system and vehicle software, components and sensors that delayed the ISS by more than an hour. Boeing says all of these issues can be fixed, and if it does, NASA is on the verge of certifying Starliner for a trip to the ISS. The company could then launch its own astronaut taxi service and compete for a space agency deal with SpaceX. Ideally, this would not only make it easier for astronauts to visit the ISS, it could also reduce the cost of space travel.

The Boeing Starliner was launched by an Atlas V rocket.
NASA / Aubrey Gemignani

NASA has been working on a plan for years to avoid a space monopoly. After the agency retired the space shuttle program in 2011, the US government had no choice but to rely on Russia for space travel, which was not only costly but also risky from a geopolitical point of view. To address this issue, NASA has changed its approach and turned to the private sector to build replacements. In 2014, the space agency announced that it had entered into an agreement with Boeing and SpaceX to build their own space capsules. Which would ideally be ready to carry astronauts within three years. The company has deliberately chosen to invest in two very different types of companies. Boeing was a longtime space contractor and partner in NASA projects including ISS and the Apollo lunar mission. SpaceX was an emerging space startup and new NASA partner, representing the future of the commercial aerospace industry.

Neither company had a car ready in 2017, and both had problems with their landing parachute and launch abort system. SpaceX completed the task of transporting human astronauts to ISS with the help of its Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020, while Boeing continues to fight with Starliner design. During the car’s first test flight in 2019, Boeing discovered a major software bug that could cause a major failure. In space, as well as a problem with the capsule’s internal clock, which forced officials to shorten the test and cancel plans to dock the capsule with the ISS. Boeing was forced to delay a second test last October after the company discovered a problem with Starliner’s propulsion system just hours before launch. Despite all these problems – and although it already has a functional spacecraft on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon – NASA is keen for Starliner to succeed on a humanitarian mission to the ISS.

“If you only have one, you’re stuck in a situation where you can pay a lot of money because no one else is competing for the business, and it’s extremely expensive,” said Christina Chaplin, a space analyst who has previously tested space. Program for Government Accountability Office. “It’s important to keep costs low, and this type of competition is how you do it.”

This is part of a conscious effort by NASA. The company has taken on the responsibility of increasing competition in the aerospace industry, usually by competing with more than one company for the same lucrative deal. This approach has already made efforts to explore deeper into space more profitable. In the short term, this includes the work of Artemis, NASA’s mission to return to the moon. And looking ahead, the company is using this strategy as it begins the process of replacing the ISS, which is expected to happen by 2030. NASA has provided initial funding for the concept of at least four different space stations, including proposals from Northrop Grumman, a decades-old space and military contractor, and Jeff Bezos’ space startup Blue Origin.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA), the company that supplied the Starliner launch rocket, is a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Paul Hennessy / Anadolu Agency

The commercial space race may seem like a distant concern to the inhabitants of the world, but it is not. The space launch competition is already having a real impact on satellite services like GPS, weather tracking and space internet services like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper. As more companies appeared to be able to launch these satellites, all these technologies became more accessible. Since the closure of the space shuttle program, for example, the cost of sending a pound of payload into orbit has dropped to a one-dimensional order, and costs could be further reduced as more startups begin launching satellites. In addition to well-known companies such as SpaceX and longtime French launcher Arianespace, the number of startups capable of launching or soon to launch satellites into space, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, is increasing.

“It all has a profound effect on data transmission, voice transmission, global positioning,” said William Kovasic, a law professor at George Washington University who wrote about competition in the space industry. “If competition in this system is reduced, if we do not continue to innovate and improve performance, if launch vehicle vendors are not able to place satellites in the right places, it will have a huge impact on the economy as a whole.”

The nightmare scene of a space monopoly is not much different from the exclusive fears here on Earth. If a single company gains too much control of the space market and advances too much in its technology, future competitors may be locked out of space forever. This means that a single company, like SpaceX, can have a huge impact on how humans explore and use resources in space.

Betting here is almost unimaginable. Space companies aren’t just determining how humans will explore other planets, such as the moon and Mars. They also shape the technologies we use every day, Internet services or products that have not yet been invented. If history is any indication, monopolies are often bad, so starting an off-planet adventure of humanity relying on just one is not ideal. The launch of Starliner is at least one step further to ensure that this does not happen.

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