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New document reveals significant fall from grace for Boeings space program

Enlarge / The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. NASA/Bill Ingalls

Much has been made of Boeing's difficulties in aviation, most notably with the 737 Max. This airplane has been grounded for a year after two crashes that killed 346 people between them, collectively making for the worst air disaster since September 11, 2001.

Then there are the issues with the company's KC-146 Pegasus tanker program, which is $3 billion over budget, three years behind schedule, and beset by technical issues. Most recently, in March, the Air Force revealed that it had upgraded chronic leaks in the aircraft's fuel system to a Category I deficiency. This is a problem for an aircraft that is supposed to perform aerial refueling.

Since December, the company's space issues have also become more widely known following the failure of the company's Starliner capsule to successfully carry out a test flight to the International Space Station. NASA labelled this aborted mission, during which the spacecraft was nearly lost two times, a "high visibility close call." The company has agreed to perform a second test flight without crew to assure NASA of Starliner's safety.

But a new document released by NASA reveals the broader scope of Boeing's apparent decline in spaceflight dominance. The "source selection statement" from NASA explains the space agency's rationale for selecting SpaceX over three other companies—Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada Corporation—to deliver large supplies of cargo to lunar orbit. NASA announced its selection of SpaceX for this "Gateway Logistics" contract in late March. The selection document says that SpaceX provided the best technical approach and the lowest price by a "significant" margin.

This lunar cargo contract is essentially the third in a series of three "commercial" contracts NASA has offered to buy services at a fixed price over the last dozen years. First came cargo delivery to low-Earth orbit. Final selections for that program were SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, a company now owned by Northrop Grumman, in 2008. Second came crew delivery to low-Earth orbit in 2014. The final selections were SpaceX and Boeing, with its now-troubled Starliner spacecraft.

Comparing selection notes

When comparing the selection rationale for the 2014 commercial crew contracts with the rationale for the recent Gateway logistics contract, the perception of Boeing's offering could not be more stark. In 2014, Boeing was very much perceived as the gold-standard—expensive, yes, but also technically masterful. In 2020, the company was still perceived as expensive but not ultimately worthy of consideration.

The 2014 crew contract analysis, authored by NASA's then-chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, frequently lauds Boeing for its technical and management expertise. "This is a very comprehensive, credible plan," Gerstenmaier wrote. He described their earlier work in the commercial crew program as "excellent and effective," while providing "high quality products with sufficient detail."

In the analysis, which compared Boeing to SpaceX and the third competitor in the crew program, Sierra Nevada, Boeing received the highest marks. "Boeing's proposal had the highest overall Mission Suitability score and the highest adjectival ratings of Excellent for each of the two mostRead More – Source