SpaceX v/s Boeing: Starliner is close to breaking SpaceX’s astronaut monopoly

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After an uncrewed Boeing Starliner landed at the International Orbit Station over the weekend, the United States now has two redundant means to deliver personnel into space. Boeing’s Starliner, the second privately-owned spaceship produced via the commercial crew program after SpaceX’s Dragon, promises to extend NASA’s research mission while also providing a new alternative for firms and individuals seeking space transportation.

NASA and Boeing teamed in 2014 to develop a spacecraft that would transport people from Earth to the orbiting laboratory, but test flights in 2019 and 2021 failed, showing major issues. The Starliner docked with the ISS on the evening of May 20 after flying into orbit last week, and astronauts already aboard opened open its door the following morning.

Although two of the vehicle’s thrusters failed during flight for unexplained causes, Starliner was constructed with built-in redundancy for exactly such a case and was able to navigate in space without risk. A heat-control system also failed, and getting the docking adaptor to work required two attempts.

Still, you’d expect that from a spaceship on its shakedown mission. It will need to safely return to Earth for a parachute landing in New Mexico after spending several days in orbit. The craft will next be analyzed by Boeing experts in preparation for a flight test with real astronauts later this year. They were advised to take their time by a panel of independent safety advisors, especially because a prospective modification of certain troublesome valves was being considered.

When Starliner is ready for regular operation, it will play a critical role in accomplishing NASA’s vision for the future of space activities near Earth. More astronauts will be able to visit the International Space Station on a regular basis, which will allow for more scientific research. And the vehicle will increase capacity for the kind of commercial missions that, according to NASA, would pave the way for the establishment of private space stations.

The Starliner will, above all, end SpaceX’s monopoly on flying astronauts for western governments and enterprises. Russia’s Soyuz and China’s Shenzhou are the only other human-rated spacecraft. When it comes to negotiating with NASA and other customers who can’t or won’t fly on such state-owned systems, SpaceX has a significant price advantage. If Boeing is willing to extend its human spaceflight services, we may finally see the anticipated reduction in the cost of traveling to space.

Source: Quartz

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