The Starliner, a space capsule designed by Boeing, landed safely in the New Mexico desert early Wednesday night. The return of the vehicle to Earth followed an almost week-long trip to the International Space Station. This trip went down in history, as it was the first time that a private American company without the name SpaceX had successfully arrived at the ISS.
Boeing has spent the last few years trying to make a capsule that could transport people to the space station. And he could do so on his next mission, which is set to happen later this year (the only passenger on the Starliner this time was a puppet named Rosie the Rocketeer). If Boeing is able to successfully reconstruct the mission with human passengers on board, it will become the second U.S. spacecraft certified to transport astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is the only other U.S. spacecraft vehicle to do so (the U.S. occasionally sent astronauts to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz rocket).
Space is playing an increasingly active role in everyday life, whether it is the rise of space tourism or satellite internet. This makes this moment an important turning point for competition in the commercial space industry. It is also a critical step forward for anyone concerned that the future of the universe is already too dependent on one company, one largely controlled by Elon Musk.
“SpaceX was once seen as a new space actor, but today it is so dominant that you can see that it is a legacy actor,” Namrata Goswami, an independent space policy expert, told Recode. “NASA has worked with Boeing through a commercial team program for fear that if you depend on just one company, you could be in trouble if something goes wrong.”
For now, NASA is still dependent on SpaceX. While this week’s Starliner mission to the ISS has been successful, there are a few issues Boeing will need to address before its next launch. After the capsule – carried by the Atlas V rocket produced by the United Launch Alliance, Boeing’s partnership with Lockheed Martin – took off, its two thrusters close too earlywhich meant the vehicle had to lean on backups.
There were also problems with the Starliner cooling system and problems with software, components and vehicle sensors that delayed docking at the ISS for more than an hour. Boeing says all of these problems can be solved, and if that happens, NASA is ready to certify Starliner to travel to the ISS. The company can then launch its own taxi service for astronauts and start competing with SpaceX for space agency contracts. Ideally, this would not only make it easier for astronauts to visit ISS more oftenbut it could also reduce the cost of space travel.
NASA has actually been working for years on a plan to avoid a space monopoly. After the agency withdrew the Space Shuttle program In 2011, the US government had no way to travel to the ISS and was completely dependent on Russia for space travel, which was not only expensive but also risky from a geopolitical point of view. To address this issue, NASA has changed its approach and turned to the private sector to make replacements. In 2014, the space agency announced that he hired Boeing and SpaceX to develop their own space capsules, which would ideally be ready to transport astronauts within three years. The agency deliberately decided to invest in two very different types of companies. Boeing has been a longtime aircraft contractor and partner for NASA projects, including ISS i Apollo mission to the moon. SpaceX was a new space startup and new NASA partnerwhich represented the future of the commercial space industry.
Neither company had a vehicle ready until 2017, and both faced problems with parachutes and interrupt start systems. SpaceX eventually successfully transported human astronauts ISS with its Crew Dragon 2020 spacecraftwhile Boeing continued to struggle with Starliner design. During the first test flight of the vehicle in 2019, Boeing discovered main software a bug that could have led to a major malfunction in space, as well as the problem with internal clock capsule, which forced officials to suspend testing and cancel plans to dock the capsule on the ISS. Boeing was forced postpone the second test last October after the company found a problem in Starline’s propulsion system just hours before the launch was scheduled. Despite all these problems – and even though it already has a functional vehicle in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon – NASA remains eager for Starliner to succeed in its manned mission to the ISS.
“If you only have one, you run into a situation where you could end up paying a lot of money because no one else is competing for the job, and that’s enormously expensive,” said Cristina Chaplain, a space analyst who previously surveyed space. programs for the Government Office of Accountability. “It’s important to keep costs low, and that kind of competition is the way you do it.”
This is part of a conscious effort by NASA. The agency has taken responsibility for fostering competition in the space industry, usually by bringing more companies to compete for the same lucrative contracts. This approach has already made efforts to investigate even deeper into space more cost effective. In the near future, this includes work on Artemis, NASA’s mission to return to the moon. And looking ahead, the agency is using this strategy as it begins the process of replacing the ISS, which is expected to happen around 2030. NASA has allocated preliminary funding for at least four different space station concepts, including proposals from Northrop Grumman, which has been an aerospace contractor for decades, and space mover Jeff Bezos Blue Origin.
A commercial space race may seem like a big concern to people on Earth, but it is not. Competition in the space launch business already has a real impact on satellite services such as GPS, time tracking and Internet services in space, such as SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper. As more and more companies have emerged that can launch these satellites, all of these technologies have become more affordable. Since the shutdown of Space Shuttle, for example, the cost of sending a pound of payload into orbit has risen reduced by an order of magnitude, and the price could get even lower as more startups start launching satellites. In addition to well-known companies such as SpaceX and long-time French launch provider Arianespace, there are a growing number of startups that have or could soon send satellites into space, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Galacticand Blue Origin.
“It has a profound effect on the transmission of all data, voice transmission, global positioning,” said William Kovacic, a law professor at George Washington University who wrote about competition in the space industry. “If the competition in that system subsides, if we don’t have constant innovation and performance improvements, if the rocket suppliers can’t put the satellites in the right place, it will have a big impact on the whole economy.”
The scenario from the nightmare of space monopoly is not too different from the fear of monopoly here on Earth. If just one company gains too much control over the space market and advances too much with its technology, it is possible that future competitors could be left without space forever. This means that one company, like SpaceX, could have a huge impact on how people visit and use resources in space.
The stakes here are almost unthinkable. Space companies are not just shaping the way humans will explore the moon and other planets, such as Mars. They also shape the technologies we use every day, whether it’s online services or products that haven’t been invented yet. If history is any indication, monopolies are often bad, so it is not ideal to start an endeavor of humanity outside the planet depending on one. Launching Starliner is at least one more step forward to make sure it doesn’t happen.