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Starliner vs. SpaceX – Space Taxi Contest

Reiner Hertl
1 picture
5 minutes

There was great jubilation when, once again at last, US astronauts from SpaceX’s “Crew Dragon” docked with the International Space Station at the beginning of June. Launched from US soil. The disappointment was deep when Boeing’s unmanned “Starliner” failed to reach the ISS at the end of December and had to turn away. In this contest for the taxi capsule of the 21st century – who is out there in front with NASA?

A sustainable flight route into space. Destination North America.

The US Spaceport: John F. Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

Takeoff of the Starliner: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, launch pad Space Launch Complex 41. From here, the “Viking”, “Voyager”, “Curiosity” and “New Horizons“were already launched. On July 17th the Nasa rover “Perseverance” is also scheduled to leave for Mars from here. SpaceX is heading into space from launch pad 39A. It was from the Kennedy Space Center that the space shuttles were launched, Apollo 11. In the meantime, this platform remained inactive for a longer period of time, and was completely reconditioned and subsequently leased by SpaceX.

These adjoining, history-steeped locations, from which Starliner vs. Crew Dragon take off, also are also a symbol of their healthy rivalry. Just as Boeing vs. SpaceX could also stand for tradition vs. vision. “We use proven technologies and structures based on our rich heritage”, says John Mulholland, Vice President of Boeing and Manager of the Commercial Program. And how does he see the competition? The extent to which I have collected so many “lessons good and bad” is experience no competitor has. It is precisely the different procedures of the private companies which Nasa can benefit from. It can give support, and then order services there. In order to advance further into space:

Beyond the ISS and the Moon. Manned missions to Mars are drawing closer.

The “reach for the stars”, or more precisely: planets – is taking longer than expected. Nasa and Boeing have been working on the “Space Launch System SLS” for a long time. And SpaceX has long been working on the “Starship“, whose first test flights at low altitude are expected soon. By the end of this year, it could already be entering Earth orbit. Manned and unmanned interplanetary missions are on their way to becoming reality, with the Mars surface in particular being targeted for the long term.

For the time being, our focus remains on the space outpost of humanity (which the space shuttles helped to establish): the ISS; keeping it supplied remains a key goal and motivation. And this is ultimately about nothing less than establishing a structured space cargo handling system. And, of course, making space accessible to private individuals. So when does a new test flight of the Starliner get its second chance? And how does SpaceX give space tourism a further boost? WingMag already reported on this. The available seats are still limited.

ISS - International Space Station
The international space station ISS / © NASA

Passenger flight routes in outer space. The travel tickets are exclusive.

The Crew Dragon offers space for seven people in total. As does the equally conical crew module of the Starliner. In this way, passenger journeys into space will become more feasible. Companies such as Space Adventures Ltd., which has already put in a bravura performance by bringing the first space tourists to the ISS, offers further flights with its contract partner Boeing. Flights such as those that SpaceX is now rescheduling from the Crew Dragon to the Starship.

And how does Russia plan to continue flying to the ISS and the Moon by means in addition to its Soyuz programme? “Federazija”, the new spaceship currently in development, is being equipped to accommodate four people. It should be able to be reused about five times. Great importance is also attached to the Starliner and the Crew Dragon being able to be used several times:

Reuse instead of new construction. Rocket recycling can pay off.

After a safe landing – on a remote-controlled ship (SpaceX), or braked by parachutes, cushioned by airbags, on dried-out mainland lakes (Starliner): the rocket stages and crew modules should be able to be reused between three and ten times. The higher the rate of reuse of expensive components, the more economical the projects become – given a correspondingly high launch frequency. The required processing time for the reusable parts is taken into account.

The second, again unmanned Starliner test is expected before the end of 2020. Immediately after its tricky debut, Nasa defined sixty-one so-called “corrective actions”. After the Starliner went into a wrong orbit due to a software error at the end of last year and could not dock with the ISS. And went on to land safely two days later in the desert of New Mexico. Now the repetition of the flight is planned for the fourth quarter of this year. The so-called Boe-OFT repetition, the Boeing Orbital Flight Test.

New space era in the times of COVID-19. The comeback of US space flights, next generation.

Tightly managed COVID-19 regulations are also in effect in Florida. So the mood at the party for the successful Crew Dragon-ISS docking remained slightly subdued. But the “wild party” is still to come”. Anyway, according to SpaceX chief engineer Hans Königmann, they were sure beforehand that they could “pull it off”. For Crew Dragon astronauts Hurley und Behnken, prophylactic measures were taken against possible infection in order to stay on schedule.

However, some other schedules (e.g. for the SLS) may now be delayed due to COVID-19. Nasa also had to send many employees home. The astronaut Christopher Cassidy, who was able to welcome the Crew Dragon astronauts aboard the ISS, said in a telephone conference “It feels different to leave Earth in the middle of a global crisis”. He was launched to the International Space Station on 9 April. With the Soyuz MS-16 mission.

© Pixabay M_Caballero

Title image © Boeing

by Reiner Hertl

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