Starliner, a space capsule designed by Boeing, landed safely in the New Mexico desert on Wednesday evening. The return of the vehicle to Earth came after a nearly week-long trip to the International Space Station. This trip made history, as it marked the first time that an American private company not called SpaceX successfully arrived at the ISS.
Boeing has spent the last few years trying to build a capsule that could carry humans to the space station. And he could do it on his next mission, which is scheduled for later this year (the only passenger on the Starliner this time was a mannequin named Rosie the Rocketeer). If Boeing is able to successfully recreate the mission with human passengers on board, it will become the second U.S. spacecraft certified to carry astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the only other American spacecraft to do so (the United States has occasionally sent astronauts to the ISS with the Soyuz rocket from Russia).
Space is playing an increasingly active role in everyday life, whether through the rise of space tourism or satellite Internet. This makes this an important milestone for competition in the commercial space industry. It’s also a critical step forward for anyone worried because the future of space already depends too much on a single company, one that is largely controlled by Elon Musk.
“SpaceX was once seen as a new space actor, but today it is so dominant that it can be seen as a legacy actor,” Namrata Goswami, an independent space policy scholar, told Recode. “NASA partnered with Boeing through the commercial crew program for fear that if you’re only dependent on one company, it could get in trouble if something goes wrong.”
For now, NASA still depends on SpaceX. While this week’s Starliner mission to the ISS was a success, there are several issues that Boeing will have to address before its next launch. After the capsule, which was carried by an Atlas V rocket manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, Boeing’s partnership with Lockheed Martin, took off, two of its thrusters closed prematurely, which meant the vehicle had to rely on backups.
There were also issues with the Starliner cooling system and problems with the vehicle’s software, components, and sensors that delayed the ISS coupling by more than an hour. Boeing says all of these issues can be fixed, and if that happens, NASA is ready to certify Starliner for ISS trips. The company can then start its own astronaut taxi service and start competing with SpaceX for space agency contracts. Ideally, this would not only make it easier for astronauts to visit the ISS more often, but it could also reduce the cost of space travel.
NASA has been working on a plan to avoid a space monopoly for years. After the agency withdrew the space shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. government had no way to travel to the ISS and relied entirely on Russia for outer space travel, which was not only expensive. but also risky from a geopolitical point of view. To solve this problem, NASA changed its approach and turned to the private sector to build replacements. In 2014, the space agency announced that it had hired Boeing and SpaceX to develop its own space capsules. which would ideally be ready to carry astronauts in three years. The agency deliberately decided to invest in two very different types of companies. Boeing has long been an aerospace contractor and partner in NASA projects, including the ISS and the Apollo Moon Mission. SpaceX was a growing space startup and a new partner of NASA, which represented the future of the commercial space industry.
Neither company had a vehicle ready in 2017, and both faced problems with their landing gear parachutes and launch abort systems. SpaceX ended up successfully transporting human astronauts to the ISS with its Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2020, while Boeing continued to struggle with the design of Starliner. During the vehicle’s first test flight in 2019, Boeing discovered a major software error that could have caused a massive crash. 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 at the ISS. Boeing was forced to delay a second test last October after the company encountered a problem with Starliner’s propulsion system just hours before launch. Despite all these problems, and even though it already has a functional vehicle in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, NASA still wishes Starliner success with a manned mission to the ISS.
“If you only have one, you’re stuck in a situation where you can end up paying a lot of money because there’s no one else competing for the business, and it’s hugely expensive,” said Cristina Chaplain, a space analyst who previously reviewed the space. programs for the Government Accountability Office. “It’s important to keep costs low, and having that kind of competition is how you do it.”
This is part of a conscious effort by NASA. The agency has taken on the responsibility of fostering competition in the space industry, usually by making several companies compete for the same lucrative contracts. This approach has already made their efforts to explore space even more profitable. In the short term, this includes work on Artemis, NASA’s mission to return to the moon. And looking ahead, the agency is using this strategy when the ISS replacement process begins, which is expected to take place around 2030. NASA has provided preliminary funding for at least four different space station concepts. including proposals from Northrop Grumman, who has been an aerospace and military contractor for decades, and Jeff Bezos’ space startup, Blue Origin.
The commercial space race may seem like a powerful concern to the people of Earth, but it is not. Competition in the space launch business is already having a real impact on satellite-based services such as GPS, weather tracking, and space-based Internet services, such as SpaceX’s Starlink and the Kuiper Project. Amazon. As more companies emerge that can launch these satellites, all of these technologies have become more accessible. Since the space shuttle program closed, for example, the price of sending a pound of payload into orbit has decreased by an order of magnitude, and the cost could be even lower as more startups begin. to launch satellites. In addition to well-known companies such as SpaceX and French launch provider Arianespace, there are also a growing number of companies that are or may be able to send satellites into space, such as Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
“It has a profound impact on all data transmission, voice transmission, and global positioning,” said William Kovacic, a law professor at George Washington University who has written about competition in the space industry. “If competition in this system fails, if we don’t have continuous innovation and performance improvements, if launch vehicle providers can’t put satellites in the right place, it will have a significant domino effect across the board. economy “.
The nightmare scenario of a space monopoly is not too different from the fear of a monopoly here on Earth. If only one company gains too much control over the space market and advances too much with its technology, it is possible that future competitors may be permanently blocked. This means that a single company, such as SpaceX, could end up with a huge influence on how humans visit and use resources in space.
The bets here are almost unimaginable. Space companies are not just setting up how humans will explore the Moon and other planets, such as Mars. They are also shaping the technologies we use every day, whether they are Internet services or products that have not yet been invented. If history is any indication, monopolies are often bad, so it is not ideal to start the adventure of humanity off the planet depending on one. The launch of Starliner is at least another step forward to make sure this doesn’t happen.