back to article Boeing's Starliner CST-100 on its way to the ISS 2 years late

Two and a half years after its first disastrous launch, Boeing has once again fired its CST-100 Starliner capsule at the International Space Station. This time it appeared to go well, launching at 18:54 ET from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral. The RD-180 main engine and twin solid rocket boosters of the Atlas V …

  1. NoneSuch Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    Competition

    Always good for the end user, bad for SpaceX.

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Competition

      Not bad for spacex at all...

      It's prudent to have multiple independent vehicles capable of these trips. The fact that we can no longer rely on cooperation from roscosmos highlights this. In this case the "safe bet" didn't work, but the "somewhat out there" upstart did.

      That's an encouragement to competition (and one reason I really want to see some working BE4 engines, so that starliner doesn't end up hitching a lift on F9).

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Competition

      SpaceX doesn't care. Given the choice between Dragon and Starliner, NASA will choose Dragon (cheaper and already a better record) for additional launches. It's unlikely Startliner will be eating their lunch in any significant way.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Competition

        >NASA will choose Dragon (cheaper and already a better record)

        Really ? How many SpaceX facilities are in the constituency of people on NASA's budget committee

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: Competition

          While there is no denying the pork, there's also now enough precedent that there would be massive backlash against choosing the pork over SpaceX when it comes to basic crew or cargo services. The "average joe public" is now much more aware of the cost of different launch providers and suddenly "space is just expensive" is no longer acceptable when giving a billion per launch to ULA for example.

    3. DS999 Silver badge

      Depending on SpaceX alone

      Would be as dumb as depending on Boeing alone.

      Ideally we will have at least three capable launch companies, then NASA can competitively bid contracts and get far better pricing and have alternatives if the winner is unable to deliver.

      If NASA went all in on SpaceX like some people want to see, it will be impossible for the others to catch up and we'll be not much better off than we are today with Starliner.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Depending on SpaceX alone

        OK, so perhaps with the ongoing issues with Starliner, not exactly the same, but similar enough not to consider the folly of single sourcing everything.

        Back in the day there were more than two viable contractors for this stuff. They all bought each other. Guess we need to start a captive breeding program for a viable third.

    4. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Re: Competition

      Both Boeing and SpaceX have Commercial Crew Program contracts to develop and operate new spacecraft to deliver astronauts to and from the ISS. This event does not affect SpaceX's contract.

      It's also worth noting that Boeing has spent almost twice as much to get to this point as SpaceX was awarded for the entire Crew Dragon development and operation program. Boeing is now losing money on the program. If anything this paints SpaceX in a very favourable light.

    5. FeepingCreature Bronze badge

      Re: Competition

      This is the sort of competition a company can only wish for.

      Uncompetetive in business or technology, but real enough to satisfy multiple-provider requirements.

    6. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: Competition

      Given how it's gone so far, I reckon it's seriously bloody good for SpaceX.

      The competition seem to have decided that rather than covering themselves in glory, they'd just daub themselves in shit and rebrand it as glory.

    7. iron Silver badge

      Re: Competition

      I fail to see how competition from a spacecraft that is more expensive, less reliable, includes a large disposible section and is markedly lower tech (check out that 70s airliner cockpit on Starliner) will be bad for SpaceX.

      Edit: Forgot to mention, SpeceX turn a profit on Dragon launches, Boeing have taken a half billion loss on Starliner so far and will never see a profit from the programme.

  2. Greybearded old scrote Silver badge
    WTF?

    Rushing it, much?

    After such a severe failure, I think I'd want more than one good test before I put the monkeys in the tin can.

    1. Platinum blond(e)

      Re: Rushing it, much?

      After such a severe failure, I think I'd want more than one good test before I put the monkeys in the tin can.

      ^^^^^^^^^^ This!

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Rushing it, much?

        Perhaps a few of the Boeing board before the monkeys. Not all of them, you might want to keep some spares for the second attempt.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Rushing it, much?

          On second thoughts - send the beancounters. Any tin can will do.

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Rushing it, much?

      Severe failure?

      The first was an erroneous clock setting, that caused too much fuel to be used to complete the mission, and the capsule was safely returned.

      The second was valve failures, and the capsule never left the ground

      This flight has had further valve failures, and that's a little worrying, but I don't think there is any evidence yet that the capsule won't make it back home.

      The failures have been public, and embarrassing, but they don't (yet) qualify as severe failures I don't think

      1. Cuddles Silver badge

        Re: Rushing it, much?

        "The first was an erroneous clock setting, that caused too much fuel to be used to complete the mission, and the capsule was safely returned."

        Have you forgotten about the other two critical bugs only discovered during the flight, either of which would have caused catastrophic failure? The screw-up with the clock was the only thing that saved the mission, since NASA has stated that they would not have been found if everything else had gone to plan.

        "The second was valve failures, and the capsule never left the ground This flight has had further valve failures, and that's a little worrying"

        By "worrying", you probably mean "expected". Because they haven't actually fixed the problem with the valves, they've just vaguely duck taped over it (very nearly literally) and said they'll get around to a proper fix later. Not only has the temporary fix clearly not worked very well, but personally I'd be very wary of getting in a Boeing-built craft that was flown in a different configuration from that which was actually tested. They're only one step away from calling it the Starliner MAX.

        1. John Robson Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: Rushing it, much?

          "Have you forgotten about the other two critical bugs only discovered during the flight, either of which would have caused catastrophic failure? "

          Yes, yes I had...

          I still find the multiple in flight failures to be worrying, since the paper covers should have protected those thrusters adequately.

          There should be no starliner MAX, I'll agree with that.

  3. Richard Gray 1
    WTF?

    Just the two failures then..

    I'm curious as to how many other manned flights (in the recent past) had thruster failures?

    I'm guessing none or they would have been reported more widely.

    Given this is meant to be a demo flight for how everything is wonderful after the last time, I don't see having a single thruster failure can be marked as a successful launch.

    Yes they can manage without those two thrusters but what about next time? 3? 4 failed thrusters?

    They must do better for a manned launch vehicle.

    1. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

      Re: Just the two failures then..

      There have been quite a few, actually. Including one that almost killed Neil Armstrong (the first man to set foot on the Moon) during a Gemini flight where the thrusters kept spinning the capsule faster and faster.

      Most people would've panicked and died, but Armstrong kept his calm and forced a reentry back to Earth.

      1. Richard Gray 1

        Re: Just the two failures then..

        I did say in the recent past, I'm hoping that the engineering & safety would have improved since the 60s

        1. GrahamRJ

          Re: Just the two failures then..

          You've heard about Boeing's 737-MAX debacle? I wouldn't stake too much on that hope, especially if I was part of the payload.

      2. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: Just the two failures then..

        the early astronauts were all test pilots. Modern astronauts should be more like commercial pilots, and be able to fly highly reliable craft on scheduled runs without incident.

        Of course they'll still be still "test pilots" on the first few flights of any new system, but it seems to me that the Boeing design may need a bit more improvement in reliability before putting people on it.

    2. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Just the two failures then..

      I don't see having a single thruster failure can be marked as a successful launch.

      Sure it can. Heck, Falcon 9 can lose an engine on ascent (much worse than a low-thrust maneuvering thruster) and still make the intended orbit.

      That's known as engineering for off-nominal situations.

      As long as the vehicle still makes the required maneuver and still has a bit of redundancy, you're fine.

      The big problem is this trunk gets discarded on landing, so they won't have the failed units to look at.

      1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

        Re: Just the two failures then..

        And if nothing else, the loss of the thruster(s) on this test flight is an opportunity to make further improvements before they start carrying people.

      2. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Just the two failures then..

        "As long as the vehicle still makes the required maneuver and still has a bit of redundancy, you're fine."

        Isn't that what they said about the shuttle SRB O ring seals... Or would you have considered a third ring to be "still got some redundancy left?

    3. Timbo Bronze badge

      Re: Just the two failures then..

      The BBC website says:

      "Boeing had attempted to fly Thursday's mission in August last year but was forced to abandon that exercise when valves in the capsule's propulsion system wouldn't open and close properly on the launch pad.

      This issue still requires a permanent fix but engineers were happy to let the latest launch go ahead with temporary corrective measures in place."

      So, hopefully, this flight will give them enough feedback to make more permanent and lasting "fixes" before any human guinea pigs are allowed to hitch a ride.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Just the two failures then..

        The august failure was because the rocket is fuelled with EVIL-CHEMICAL, it was left fully fueled and the valves leaked, the EVIL-CHEMICAL mixed with water from the humid air and made nitric acid which wasn't very good for the engine

        1. dajames Silver badge

          Re: Just the two failures then..

          EVIL-CHEMICAL

          That's not how you spell (di)nitrogen tetroxide ... or hydrazine, for that matter, but it was the NTO that corroded the valves, or so Spaceflight Now says.

      2. iron Silver badge

        Re: Just the two failures then..

        Paper covers over the inlet and outlet vent. Seriously, go check the pictures.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: Just the two failures then..

          Seems reasonable. Needs to seal it properly, but get blown off when the thruster fires.

          The permanent version probably just adds a logo.

    4. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Just the two failures then..

      See here for some examples from last year:

      https://thedebrief.org/iss-russian-thruster-glitch/

      https://www.theverge.com/2021/7/29/22600306/uncontrolled-firing-from-russian-module-causes-brief-tug-of-war-on-international-space-station

      When it's attached to the ISS it doesn't matter whether the module is manned or not - the whole ISS is manned.

  4. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Food for thought before being launched into space

    “I shudder to think, this thing was built by the lowest bidder.” … Gordon Cooper.

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Food for thought before being launched into space

      Not in this case. The Boeing bid was quite a bit more than SpaceX.

  5. spireite Silver badge

    Failover....

    In that I mean that when SpaceX are fully booked, the people who need the kit sending up will go to this...

    1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Re: Failover....

      The kit, in the case of this craft, is humans; there are already several providers of cargo transport to/from the ISS.

  6. HildyJ Silver badge
    Pint

    Halfway there

    The next milestone will be tonight (EDT) when they attempt to dock with the ISS. Even though its history is less than stellar, I still wish the boffins well.

    As far as the malfunctioning thrusters, the multiple redundancies should still allow docking and deorbit. Still I wouldn't mind a few more cargo missions before they put spam in the can.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Halfway there

      Considering the multiple scrubs caused by the thruster system rusting out on the ground, having two fail at launch isn't a great look. (Those were the maneuvering thrusters valves that were rusting shut on the ground right?)

      Having 2 fail one time in flight would be black swan territory. Multiple failures at launch hot on the heels of a history of failures on the ground starts to look more like a critically flawed system component. Considering the context, one that will probably need to be ripped out have most of the crafts flight rating an testing redone as well.

      But Boring is getting paid either way, $$$ becomes $$$$ for every failure. But no one can publicly admit this whole project was just an excuse to prop up the old guard in the aerospace wing of the defense contractors. Because the DoD still wants the stuff they make that SpaceX and Blueorigin won't touch.

      There is a case for that from a purely Machiavellian standpoint, but we'd probably be better off admitting we are bending the rules and just giving them some block grants instead of enabling them by putting a fig leaf over obvious padding, graft, and corruption that leads to delays and flawed systems. Those are hard habits to break, and why we can't even get a cargo plane that is able to perform as well as the one that it is replacing, but also pay much more for.

      1. Gene Cash Silver badge

        Re: Halfway there

        But no one can publicly admit this whole project was just an excuse to prop up the old guard in the aerospace wing of the defense contractors

        They don't have to. SpaceX's performance with Crew Dragon says it all, and has embarrassed the hell out of Boeing. Boeing has also lost a large chunk of change having to pay for the reflight.

        Boeing is screwed because it bought McDonnell-Douglas and acquired the beancounters that were killing McD and are now killing Boeing.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Halfway there

          But America is a ruthlessly capitalist country -

          So they will use whichever private company pays most to the politicians

      2. eldakka Silver badge

        Re: Halfway there

        > But no one can publicly admit this whole project was just an excuse to prop up the old guard in the aerospace wing of the defense contractors.

        I disagree.

        There must be two viable delivery systems. 2 different orbital launch systems, 2 different supply capsules, 2 different crew capsules, etc.

        While Boeing has become a laughing stock for starliner, who else had any chance of being able to provide a second crew capsule in the timelines required? Sure, if a decade ago they had of chosen another bidder to be the 2nd supplier, that company may have succeeded. But I think NASA hedged their bets in that they chose one 'new space' company that had no track record of delivering a human-rated capsule - SpaceX - and one 'old-space' company that has a history of delivering human-rated capsules. The surprising thing is that it's Boeing who's flubbed it this badly, with SpaceX looking like the old-hand just producing yet another capsule, making Boeing look like the inexperienced upstart who makes lots of mistakes because it's its first such contract.

        I don't think anyone doubted that Boeing would cost way more than SpaceX, but being an experienced - if somewhat expensive - hand, the expectation would have been that they were the 'safe' bet. Which has, of course, been shown to be have been wildly wrong. It's actually a sad indictment of new Boeing, of how far they have fallen in the last 20 years (since the McDonnell-Douglas reverse-takeover) as an engineering company, which at the time of the issuance of these contracts hadn't become as overtly visible as they are today.

        1. iron Silver badge

          Re: Halfway there

          > who else had any chance of being able to provide a second crew capsule in the timelines required?

          Sierra Nevada and the Dream Chaser: https://www.sncorp.com/what-we-do/dream-chaser-space-vehicle/

          Unfortunately SN came third in the selection process so their awesome looking, reusable spacecraft was not chosen. But, they have continued to develop it and I think they are planning a test flight later this year.

          1. John Robson Silver badge

            Re: Halfway there

            Be good to see them get a little assistance to human rate it soon.

      3. iron Silver badge

        Re: Halfway there

        > But Boring is getting paid either way, $$$ becomes $$$$ for every failure

        No they don't. ULA are charging them for the Atlas rocket used to launch the Starliner capsule.

        This is not a cost plus contract, this is the Commercial Crew programme which has a fixed price. Boeing's price is the highest but they cannot increase it and in fact the opposite of your statement is true - Boeing have lost half a billion dollars on Starliner and will probably never make a profit on the programme.

        > Because the DoD still wants the stuff they make that SpaceX and Blueorigin won't touch.

        Jeff's BO has never been to space, they do nothing that the DoD would find useful. The USAF and Space Force use SpaceX to launch missions regularly including secret national security (spy sat) launches. There is no "stuff SpaceX won't touch." Falcon 9 is the most reliable rocket ever built, why would you put your $1 billion spy sat on anything else?

      4. BOFH in Training Bronze badge

        Re: Halfway there

        Boeing has to eat the cost of the retest, cos this is not a cost plus traditional mission. This is a fixed price mission(commercial crew program).

        So regardless it takes them 1 year or a decade to fly a mission, they still get paid the same amount. And regardless they only did one flawless flight or needed to test in 10 different flights, it is still the same amount. So any time they delay or need to retest, it's all on them.

        Boeing vastly overestimated what they can do and and expected to steamroll over spacex. After all they were expected to perform the first manned flights, before spacex. But the first test was when the wheels came off and they rolled off the road.

        As I understand, they are already in the hole for over 500million bucks, cos of this retest. And they are not expected to profit at all, even if the rest of the booked flights are all flawless.

    2. HildyJ Silver badge
      Pint

      And It's Docked!

      All tests,passed.

      Soft docking at 7:28 PM CDT.

      Hard docking at 7:50 PM CDT.

      Tomorrow they pressurize the vestibule and open the hatches.

  7. ricegf
    Go

    Fund DreamChaser, please

    Given Boeing's ongoing litany of engineering, uh, challenges across do many of its programs, I'd be delighted if Congress added funding for the crew version of the DreamChaser shuttle to the upcoming budget.

    DreamChaser will begin cargo operations next year, and was designed for human transport as well but want funded in the final round of that program's funding. Given the upcoming breadth of human stations, a third option would be most prudent.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fund DreamChaser, please

      Beyond a delightfully 70's retro design, what are the benefits for returning to a long runway spaceplane design over the current options? I can see some benefits over splash capsules, but as the tail landing rockets seem to be working themselves out, are there other big advantages of the glide decent model that counteract the benefits of the other designs?

      I know the X-3* series vehicles are (probably) doing a bunch of the same stuff that the shuttle was originally designed to handle (Probably out of vandenburg too, go figure) so it might get some of that work too, and Vandenburg is setup to handle returning the orbiter from the landing back to the launch facility. The shuttle made that a bit silly when they were flying it back and forth cross country on the back of a giant jumbo jet.

      Seems like tail landers are more suited to work off smaller footprint landing pads, nearer to their refurbishment hangars, and allowing tighter turnaround for relaunch. There also seems to be weight savings, which count the weight of pennies in 100£ notes due to the cruel reality of the rocket/fuel equations.

      What do you think?

      1. ricegf

        Re: Fund DreamChaser, please

        Rockets launch capsules or shuttles and then land on their tails (or in the case of Rocket Lab, parachute and get captured mid-air by a helicopter).

        DreamChaser is equivalent to a capsule, not a rocket. Capsules either splash down in the ocean (all US capsules prior to Starliner) or touchdown on land with retros and / or airbags (Russian and Chinese capsules and Starliner).

        Shuttles perform runway landings. This is much gentler for sensitive cargo, likely a major factor in DreamChaser selection as a cargo ship, and simplifies reuse. But they also have more interior space and greater flexibility for crew missions.

        And they just look cool. Hard to put a price on that.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: Fund DreamChaser, please

          Yup, a runway-landing capsule supports far lower G-loading and heavier payloads brought back than is possible with airbags and splashdowns.

          That alone makes it worth investing in the technology, as it permits landing payloads that would be impossible any other way.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Fund DreamChaser, please

            On the other hand, SpaceX's Starship is going to be a tail-lander with quite a large load capacity even for the landing. I don't know what sort of G forces are involved in that sort of landing though.

            1. Richard 12 Silver badge

              Re: Fund DreamChaser, please

              True, however it remains to be seen whether NASA would man-rate Starship. They refused to let Dragon land on Dracos, after all.

              If the landing rockets don't fire on first attempt, what's the backup? Not much time to bail out, and a brick glides better.

      2. iron Silver badge

        Re: Fund DreamChaser, please

        From the SN website:

        "Since Dream Chaser uses all non-toxic consumables, including propellants, there are no environmental or safety hazards that require unique ground support infrastructure. As a result, it has the potential to land anywhere that has a suitable 10,000 ft runway capable of handling a typical large passenger airplane. Almost immediately after landing, the Dream Chaser spaceplane offers access to cargo and crew. Additionally, a runway landing substantially increases safety and reduces risk because runways are developed, maintained and operated to strict domestic and international standards. With other spacecraft, such as capsules, a distant splash down into an ocean or remote landing crew and cargo retrieval is more labor intensive, takes longer to complete, requires more support infrastructure and introduces risk - including those related to injured crew or sensitive cargo. For scientists, researchers, and medical personnel, the benefits of the near-immediate accessibility afforded by runway landings are unmatched."

        So landings are safer, cheaper, require less custom support infrastructure and gives immediate access to crew and cargo.

  8. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    IT Angle

    BTW Con-gress was keen to down select to a single supplier

    Guess which one Con-gress wanted?

    Boeing charged more (and were given more) for this with their we're-THE-safe-pair-of-hands routine.

    That BS fell apart on the first flight.

    Basically bacause they had one set of actual thrusters (which being space grade are very expensive) and 2 translator boxes that converted "fire +ve roll thruster" in the software into a powerful enough drive signal to fire thruster 1 got mis-configured (because it appears no one was tracking the configuration data) into thruster anything-but-1.

    IOW the hallmark of a large corporation that demanded top $ and ran a cheapskate development programme. :-(

    Let's hope this time they actually take it seriously and do the job their engineers are capable of.

    1. anothercynic Silver badge

      Re: BTW Con-gress was keen to down select to a single supplier

      I suggest you change your view... especially once you've read 'Flying Blind'. Unfortunately, Boeing are not changing their spots anytime soon. They're addicted to the money they get from the DoD and NASA.

  9. Decani
    WTF?

    No end to end testing...

    "including the discovery that Boeing hadn't bothered with end-to-end testing" - unbelievable and so very sad that a once mighty engineering company has come to this. Sack most of the fekking bean counters and managers and move management back to the factories.

    1. Timbo Bronze badge

      Re: No end to end testing...

      "Cost-cutting" seems to be a "thing" for Boeing to do...the 737 Max being another casualty of short cuts being made to save money...

      The sad part is that lives are dependent on Boeing NOT cutting costs, so that travelling in one of their craft is safe for the "crew" and any passengers on board.

  10. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    Starliner?

    The name's a bit pretentious, but it seems to have mostly worked this time.

    It was a a bit disappointing though. Few onboard cameras, much of the process being fed to us as animation. I guess I've grown used to SpaceX giving us live video of the entire flight to orbit. I missed seeing the boosters and first stage landing too. Somehow, despite the futuristic and pretentious name of the capsule, it all felt very retro :-/

    Now, I'm off to paddle my rowing boat around the lake. I named it LEVIATHAN!!!

    1. msobkow Silver badge

      Re: Starliner?

      Betcha your rowboat's thrusters/oars are more reliable than Boeings. :)

      1. yoganmahew

        Re: Starliner?

        Rollocks.

  11. msobkow Silver badge

    Boeing - where cost overruns, delays, and oversights are endemic to the MIC cultural history.

    Personally I think they should have been sued for failure to deliver long before now...

  12. innominatus

    De-orbit plan?

    "Starliner is carrying over 500 pounds of supplies to the ISS and will return with 600 pounds", so just need to keep that up and there'll be nothing left to dump in the Pacific?

    1. msobkow Silver badge

      Re: De-orbit plan?

      No, that's the result of human weirdity where you gain ten pounds from eating a pound of food, and half of the 10 comes out the other end... :P

  13. Pete 2 Silver badge

    It's one thing to have triple-redundancy, another to need it

    > One [thruster] shut down almost immediately, and another stopped seconds later. The spacecraft switched to a third thruster, which performed as expected.

    Especially when the next flight of this bucket will carry people

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