If It’s Boeing, It Ain’t Going

It pains me to say that. I spent a lot of time in their performance engineering school in Seattle, and after every course I came home feeling like a rocket scientist.

CST-100 Starliner passing by Charleston on its way to (the wrong) orbit.

After today I wonder if their rocket scientists feel like rocket scientists:

For most space launches, a rocket will take its payload all the way to Earth orbit — but that wasn’t the case for this mission. The Atlas V deployed the Starliner into a suborbital path around Earth, a trajectory that would not keep the capsule lapping around Earth indefinitely. Unless it ignited its own engines boosting itself into an actual orbit, the Starliner would eventually fall back into the ocean. This plan was a conscious decision made by the Starliner team. The idea was to drop the capsule off closer to Earth — a safety measure added just in case there ever was an emergency on future flights with passengers on board. That would make it easier for the crew to abort the launch and come home more easily and more comfortably.
Of course, getting Starliner to orbit meant the capsule absolutely had to ignite its own engines in order to climb higher into space. Initially, NASA and Boeing said the ignition had been delayed, and for a while it was uncertain if it occurred at all. Now, it seems that some kind of ignition did occur, but whatever happened did not put the Starliner on the path it was supposed to reach.

Well then.

I don’t pretend to have a clue what happened. Hopefully it’s easily understood and a quick fix–but in space program terms, “quick” is relative. At this rate, who knows when we’ll see a crewed Starliner flight?

Between this and the MCAS debacle, one rightly wonders what the actual &#$%@! is going on at the world’s leading aerospace manufacturer. It’s fair to wonder if this points to bigger problems, the rumblings of which I began to hear about 10-15 years ago after the McDonnell/Douglas merger. The engineers I got to know in Seattle were almost to a man concerned with the new management culture being imposed on them. They were afraid Boeing was becoming less of an engineering concern and more of a “business.”

That might have sounded like frightened old-timers protecting their rice bowls, but it looks like they knew what they were talking about. The bean counters took over, much to Boeing’s detriment. Moving the headquarters out of Seattle to Chicago certainly didn’t help. The 787 was a slow-motion fiasco, with supply chain and certification problems that delayed its entry to service by years, but at least the thing’s flying and hasn’t killed anybody yet. If only we could say the same thing for the 737 Max.

Safety and quality are always a balancing act: if you park all of your airplanes, you’ll never have an accident. You’ll also be out of business. You can likewise implement quality systems which are so onerous that nothing gets done. The opposite is to ignore safety and quality in the chase for dollars, and it can be surprisingly easy to rationalize cutting corners for the sake of “accomplishing the mission.”

By striving to improve their bottom line through questionable business decisions, this company has created some very expensive problems for itself. I just hope they’re not fatal, as I don’t want to see Airbus become a de facto monopoly. Despite their current issues, I think Boeing has always built a better product and I want to see that continue into the future.

It takes decades to build your reputation and seconds to squander it.





Getting There From Here

Private missions to Mars are attracting more and more attention from the serious press. Here’s a clip from a piece today in The Economist discussing Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars project:

Even if everything does go according to plan, though, cynics might question the value of a billion-dollar, one-and-a-half year trip that comes within spitting distance of Mars but does not land. Dr MacCallum points out that even a fly-by would generate a great deal of publicity. “It would be a [Charles] Lindbergh” mission, says Dr Zubrin. “The point would be to prove it can be done.”

Exactly. Sometimes you just have to kick the tires and light the fires if you want to get things done. A privately bankrolled mission doesn’t have to fine-tune every aspect of it to please capricious politicians (who could really give a crap) and a skittish public (in reality, a skittish and hyperventilating press but you get my drift). That is, treating safety itself as if it’s the overall goal while at the same time making it such a bloated do-it-all attempt that nothing gets done except burning up a few billions on Powerpoint Engineering.

Really…what was the last manned spacecraft development program that NASA successfully completed? Hint: we just stopped flying them last year. And I’m defining “successful” as “a completed vehicle that managed to fly.” Anyway, it appears The Economist’s editors have a similar take on things:

It is entirely possible—likely, even—that neither of these missions will happen. Mr Tito has the better chance, but there are many more ways for him to fail than to succeed. Mr Lansdorp’s plans look too ambitious to be credible. And NASA’s recent history suggests that its aspirations, too, will be blown off course by a future president. But all this will not deter true believers, who have been discussing how to run a Mars trip for decades. With the cost of space flight lower than ever, it seems unlikely that the dream will die.

In related news, SpaceX is still at it:

First test of the Falcon 9 reusable first stage. Credit: SpaceX

Boeing, meanwhile, is still plugging away on their CST-100 system. And I hate to say it, but of all the commercial crew projects out there this one might be the least likely to succeed – and it has nothing to do with design or expertise. Rather, it’s all about The Borg’s commitment to private space. Personally, I just don’t think it’s there. They’ve made comments before about not being able to close the business case – or even being all that interested in trying to – if the funding dries up. That cost-plus contractor legacy must be hard to shake, considering NASA’s money is chump change when compared to Boeing’s resources. Of all the CCDev projects, they could certainly afford to throw the most money at it without hurting the company.

As the big dinosaurs fight over their food supply, smart little mammals stay out of their way and just keep doing what they do. In the meantime, here comes the asteroid…

Wow. Who knew aerospace had so much in common with publishing?

Once and Future Past

Gemini 9. Credit: NASA

The Atlantic recently posted a couple of really nice photo essays on the space program. The piece on decommissioning the space shuttles isn’t too surprising; that’s a big and fairly recent deal. The Gemini story is more surprising, as it happened nearly 50 years ago and is generally only thought about by space geeks like me.

Gemini was the gateway drug that hooked me on the space program, maybe because they were the first missions I was conscious of. I remember being fascinated by the big silver rocket with the little two-man tin can on top. And spacemen were cool. How could I not be drawn to something that looked just like my favorite G.I. Joe? Continue reading “Once and Future Past”