While Taylor Dinerman’s description of this week’s announcements is generally useful, it really isn’t correct to say that Boeing is getting more money than SpaceX for the new contracts to get NASA astronauts to orbit and back because the former company is “ahead of” the latter. While some at NASA (and likely many at Boeing) would like people to believe the statement that “its design was further along than that of the SpaceX proposal and, in the opinion of NASA’s leadership, has the best chance of meeting the schedule,” that is simply untrue.
In fact, it is because Boeing is behind SpaceX, and because its proposal to catch up will cost more, that it needs more money. Taylor’s characterization (shared by many this week) may be based on an article in the Journal earlier in the week by Andy Pasztor, a reporter who seems to have a long-standing habit of twisting stories against SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk, using “inside” information (i.e., spin) from his competitors. He wrote:
People familiar with the process said Boeing, with its greater experience as a NASA contractor, appears to have become the favorite partly because it has met earlier development goals in the same program on time and on budget. SpaceX didn’t fully meet all of the critical design requirements, according to a person familiar with the details.
I’m guessing that the “person familiar with the details” is a Boeing flack.
Let’s unpack this.
First of all, the statement that Boeing has met its goals “on budget” misleadingly implies that SpaceX has not. This, though, is nonsense, because both companies have fixed-price contracts. Any aspect of the work that costs more than the specified amount is eaten by the company, and no one, including NASA, other than the company itself has insight into whether or not that has occurred, so there is no basis for such an implication. In any event, the taxpayer is protected, which is a key feature of this new approach to doing business that Pasztor’s disingenuous statement ignores.
Second, with regard to schedule, NASA can have very different ideas of “progress” and “milestones” than the rest of us. For instance, as noted, a “Critical Design Review” could count as a milestone, but all it is, really, is a meeting with Powerpoint presentations indicating the status of the project. In a NASA program, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition to start actually building flight hardware (which there’s no indication that Boeing has actually yet done). SpaceX’s public rollout of its crewed version of the Dragon at the end of May, on the other hand, probably doesn’t count as a “milestone” in NASA’s eyes, because it probably wasn’t specified as one in their contract.
But the company currently plans to do two tests in the coming months with it.
The first, scheduled for November, is a pad-abort test, in which they want to demonstrate that they can get the capsule away from the launch pad quickly and safely recover it in the event of a mishap before or shortly after lift off. If that is successful, they plan another abort test in January (i.e., less than five months from now) in which they will separate the capsule from the launch vehicle in flight, at the time of maximum pressure in the atmosphere (generally considered the most challenging moment in which to do so), and recover it. In both cases they will measure the accelerations to verify that the events will be survivable by humans. The cargo version of the capsule has already repeatedly demonstrated its ability to get to the station and back with a pressurized environment, and the primary obstacles to flying with humans are abort, adding life support, and perhaps some means of controlling the vehicle by the crew (it is currently robotic and controlled from the ground and with on-board computers). After the abort tests, and an actual flight test to orbit and back, any delay in actually using it to replace the Soyuz will likely be due to passing NASA reviews and approval.
In other words, Boeing is perhaps “ahead” of SpaceX in paperwork, but SpaceX is far ahead in actually building and demonstrating flight hardware.
It is very likely that they have much less actual development in front of them, in terms of bending metal, than does Boeing, which accounts for at least some of the higher costs for the latter. On top of that, though, is the fact that Boeing plans to use an Atlas V to launch its capsule, which costs much more than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher.
Boeing isn’t getting more money because it is “ahead” or “has a better chance of succeeding.” It is getting more money because, simply put, it needs it in order to ultimately catch up.
In fact, over the past couple weeks, rumors had been that awards were going to go to Sierra Nevada, with its little space plane, and SpaceX, in a smaller overall program budget than the $6.8 billion announced Tuesday.
This would have left Boeing, who (unlike those two companies) made quite clear that they would not continue with their own money absent a NASA contract, out in the cold. If that was the case, only NASA knows why it changed at the last minute, but one would suspect politics, given Boeing’s many lobbyists and fans in Congress and NASA’s need to assuage them.
The bottom line is that NASA wants to not only end its dependence on the Russians for space access, but to do it redundantly, so it is never again in the position it was twice with the Space Shuttle when, for almost three years each time, it had no ability to get astronauts into space. Though Congress has been pressuring it to narrow down to a single provider to “save money,” it continues to insist (as does the Air Force with its satellite-launch capability) on resiliency and redundancy, and it’s willing to pay for it. That is why it is seemingly willing to pay more for less with Boeing — as a backup.
With regard to the Blue Origin/ULA story — another American commercial spaceflight effort, backed in part by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos — the announcement was that the new engine still has four years of development ahead, so its earliest use would likely be in 2019 (it’s now almost 2015), not 2016, as Dinerman says. And it won’t simply “replace” the engines in the Atlas and Delta. The Atlas and Delta both use different fuels (kerosene and liquid hydrogen, respectively) and the new engine will burn methane.
What this means is that any rocket that utilizes the engine will be of an entirely new design, and there will only be one of them, since the Air Force will have a backup with SpaceX and be unwilling to continue to subsidize two rockets for ULA. What it will be called — Atlas, Delta or neither — is completely unknown at this time. But the move (which cut out the established engine manufacturer Aerojet-Rocketdyne, and leaves its own corporate viability potentially in doubt) was a sign of just how desperate ULA has become to solve its dual problems of relying on Russian rocket engines and its inability to currently compete with SpaceX on cost. It’s also a sign of just how technologically disruptive to a moribund American launch industry Mr. Musk has been, something for which he should be applauded.
We now have two billionaires competing to be the first to put, in Mr. Bezos’s words on Wednesday, “millions of people in space.” Let the race, and the new vibrant American space age, begin.