December 21, 2019 •Evelyn J. Arevalo
Image Source: Boeing
SpaceX and Boeing are part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which funded their craft's development to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil. Astronauts have not been launched from the United States since the end of NASA's space shuttle era in 2011. NASA has been highly dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to launch astronauts safely to the space station.
Both, SpaceX and Boeing are actively testing their spacecrafts to ensure they are flight ready. NASA aims to launch the first crewed missions next year. We can say that both companies have a friendly rivalry going on. Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, teased SpaceX a couple of years ago, said Boeing would reach Mars first. The company has been building a rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) in coordination with NASA.
SpaceX successfully sent an unmanned Crew Dragon craft to the space station in March of this year, during Demo-1, their first demonstration mission for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX proved that Dragon is reliable to launch astronauts safely to the orbiting laboratory. Crew Dragon became the first spacecraft in history to dock autonomously to the station.
This week on December 20, Boeing attempted to do the same, and demonstrate to NASA their craft could take astronauts to the ISS. The new Starliner spacecraft took off on top of an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It headed on its debut flight to the space station carrying 600 pounds of cargo to test its capabilities. About 30 minutes after liftoff, Starliner's computer timer malfunctioned causing it to fire its engines incorrectly and use up too much fuel, failing to reach the proper orbit. Boeing stated the craft did reach a stable orbit, but it did not accomplish the correct altitude to be able to dock with the station. Starliner will now attempt to come back to Earth. NASA stated, "Boeing, in coordination with NASA and the U.S. Army, is working to return its CST-100 Starliner to land in White Sands, New Mexico, on Sunday Dec. 22"
Orbit is hard. Best wishes for landing & swift recovery to next mission.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2019
The CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, shared some words of encouragement to Boeing via Twitter. He knows how difficult it is to launch a rocket safely and reach the proper orbit. He wrote:
"Orbit is hard. Best wishes for landing and swift recovery to next mission."
Musk's company is in the last phase of testing their Crew Dragon spacecraft. In January they aim to conduct an In-Flight Abort test meant to simulate an emergency situation. The test would demonstrate to NASA that the craft is ready to carry astronauts. If all goes well, they could launch their first manned mission to the ISS as soon as Spring next year.
SpaceX is definitely ahead in this space race, but Musk's words did offer a genuine message of encouragement showing support to Boeing. After all, taking humans to the ISS, Moon, and Mars will not only be a win for a specific company --it is a win for humanity as a whole.