Saturday, December 28, 2019


OK, that was a bummer:

"(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) — Boeing safely landed its crew capsule in the New Mexico desert Sunday after an aborted flight to the International Space Station that threatened to set back the company’s effort to launch astronauts for NASA next year.

The Starliner descended into the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in the frigid predawn darkness, ending a two-day demo that should have lasted more than a week. All three main parachutes popped open and airbags also inflated around the spacecraft to ease the impact.

“Congratulations, Starliner,” said Mission Control, calling it a successful touchdown.

A test dummy named Rosie the Rocketeer — after Rosie the Riveter from World War II — rode in the commander’s seat. Also returning were holiday presents, clothes and food that should have been delivered to the space station crew.

After seeing this first test flight cut short and the space station docking canceled because of an improperly set clock on the capsule, Boeing employees were relieved to get the Starliner back.

Recovery teams cheered as they watched the capsule drift down through the air and make a bull’s- eye landing. The touchdown was broadcast live on NASA TV; infrared cameras painted the descending capsule in a ghostly white.

As the sun rose, close-up views showed the large white and black capsule upright — with hardly any scorch marks from re-entry— next to a U.S. flag waving from a recovery vehicle. The astronauts assigned to the first Starliner crew — two from NASA and one from Boeing — were part of the welcoming committee.

It was the first American-made capsule designed for astronauts to make a ground landing after returning from orbit. NASA’s early crew capsules — Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — all had splashdowns. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which made its orbital debut last winter, also aims for the ocean at mission’s end.

Minutes after touchdown, top NASA and Boeing officials poured into Mission Control in Houston to congratulate the team.

The capsule’s first trip to space began with a smooth rocket ride from Cape Canaveral on Friday. But barely a half hour into the flight, it failed to fire its thrusters to give chase to the space station and ended up in the wrong orbit.

The problem was with the Starliner’s internal clock: It did not sync up with the Atlas V rocket, throwing off the capsule’s timing.

The capsule burned so much fuel trying to orient itself in orbit that there wasn’t enough left for a space station rendezvous. Flight controllers tried to correct the problem, but between the spacecraft’s position and a gap in communications, their signals did not get through. They later managed to reset the clock.

Boeing is still trying to figure out how the timing error occurred. The mission lasted nearly 50 hours and included 33 orbits around the Earth.

Last month’s parachute problem turned out to be a quick fix. Only two parachutes deployed during an atmospheric test because workers failed to connect a pin in the rigging.

NASA is uncertain whether it will demand another test flight from Boeing — to include a space station visit — before putting its astronauts on board. Boeing had been shooting for its first astronaut mission in the first half of 2020. This capsule is supposed to be recycled for the second flight with crew; each Starliner is built to fly in space 10 times..."

It all began so well:

Quite a setback for Boeing, and I suppose that there may have been some Schadenfreude at SpaceX. To recap:

NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing to design a spacecraft for ferrying crew and cargo to the ISS. For reasons unknown to me, Boeing got almost double that from NASA vs SpaceX under its commercial crew program ($4 billion plus compared to $2.6 billion). Despite that discrepancy (discrimination?) SpaceX took the lead in the race to develop the new shuttle vehicle. SpaceX's Dragon crew capsule successfully completed its first orbital demo last March. You have to hand it to them: such a young company beating an old giant like Boeing, kudos. And not only that, but the Dragon was launched atop another SpaceX product as well, the Dragon 9. The only serious setback was the destruction of a capsule on a Cape Canaveral test stand. But if a launch abort test scheduled for next month goes well, SpaceX may well begin ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS by Spring, thus convincingly beating the competition. It would also mean the end of nine years of relying on Russian Soyuzes to do that.

If Boeing catches up however, and there's every reason to assume they will, it's unclear - at least to me - how the two designs can exist together. Let's compare the Starliner and the Dragon Crew capsule:

First the Starliner:

* Pricetag: Up to $4.9 billion

* Heritage: Apollo, Space Shuttle Boeing and its corporate predecessors have long experience manufacturing space vehicles. North American Rockwell built the Apollo Command Module.

* Seating Capacity: Up to 7. NASA required that each vehicle be able to transport four people to and from the station. A fifth seat is available on both vehicles. Each company advertises a seating capacity of seven.

* Head / Leg Room: Diameter: 15 ft. Height: 16.6 ft. Dimensions include service (propulsion) module.

* Engines: Aerojet/Rocketdyne Engines for abort and for maneuvering the Starliner in orbit are located in the disposable service module.

* Reusability: the crew capsule can be reflown up to 10 times. The service module will be discarded after each flight.

* Launch Vehicle: Atlas V 422 /Centaur Will be compatible with other rockets in future.

* Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 41

* Landing Site: Western U.S. Starliner will parachute to dry land, like Soyuz, and use airbags to cushion the impact. Landing sites at White Sands, NM; Dugway Proving Ground, UT; Edwards AFB, CA; Willcox Playa, AZ.

The Dragon:

* Pricetag: Up to $3.2 billion. Numbers for both companies include total NASA contract awards for developing, building, and certifying vehicles, two test flights, and up to six ferry flights to the ISS through 2024.

* Heritage: Dragon Cargo Vehicle SpaceX has been launching supplies to the space station since 2012. Crew Dragon is based on the Dragon cargo craft.

* Seating Capacity: Up to 7

* Head / Leg Room: Diameter: 12.1 ft. Height: 23.6 ft. Dimensions include Dragon’s cargo “trunk.”

* Engines: SpaceX Draco / Superdraco Engines are onboard. Superdraco engines are used for abort only.

* Reusability: Yes, Dragons are reusable, although test flights will fly new vehicles. Cargo trunk is discarded after each flight.

* Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9 Block 5

* Launch Site: Cape Canaveral LC 39A (same pad used for Apollo 11 and the space shuttle)

* Landing Site: Atlantic Ocean

I'm at a loss as to why NASA is even contemplating to use both systems, since, despite it being probably a marvel of engineering, a Starliner is no match for a Crew Dragon. It's not only that a Crew Dragon has, apart from room for the astronauts, also plenty of space for (unpressurized) cargo - it started out as a cargo vessel after all. It's the price tag, with the Dragon costing about 3/4 of a Starliner. In my humble opinion, the only thing that the Starliner has going for it is the ability to land on solid ground instead of somewhere on the Atlantic, where anything can go wrong. That, and its compatibility with other launch vehicles. But why a cash-strapped NASA would still be willing to consider a spacecraft on which a seat would cost even more than on a Soyuz is beyond me. Indeed, last November NASA's Inspector General found that a Starliner seat will cost "slightly more" than a seat on a Soyuz, while a Dragon seat will cost only half of that!

Is it perhaps the desire to have at least a modicum of redundancy? So that in case of failures showing up only after a substantial number of flights of either craft, necessitating its grounding, the other type still remains to continue, without having to rely on Russian craft again?

It's weird.


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