Investing in Space

Investing in Space: Boeing's got to get going

The Starliner spacecraft for the Crew Flight Test is seen in the company's processing facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

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Overview: Boeing's got to get going

"Boeing pushed back the flight schedule of its Starliner capsule by several months, the company said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday."

That sentence holds true this week – but the problem is, I wrote it five years ago

At the time, Boeing and SpaceX were seen as neck-and-neck in a race to finish development of their respective crewed spacecraft and be the first to fly NASA astronauts. Even then, each company had faced its share of delays, but NASA estimated flight tests were months apart. Until they weren't. 

Fast forward to the present. Boeing and SpaceX each won contracts to fly six operational missions with astronauts. The latter is poised to finish nearly all of its six before the former even flies a crewed demo mission. 

I'm not advocating for anything akin to "go fever" for Boeing's upcoming Starliner crewed flight test (CFT), which just got delayed from mid-April to late July. Instead, I'm calling for much needed transparency and clarity about a largely taxpayer-funded development program. Listening to the press conference yesterday, I found it impossible to believe that NASA and Boeing just realized that launching in three weeks was no longer feasible, especially given the track record of delays.  

But we're only finding out about it now, even as Starliner needs to conduct more testing on its parachute system and backup software before CFT gets off the ground. Assuming the test flight goes according to plan, then there are the redesigns of Starliner's propulsion valves and module separation system – and potentially batteries – that are underway for missions after CFT.

The process through which NASA signs off on a spacecraft that will fly its astronauts is a painstaking one, for good reason, with 330 requirements for certification. And, as NASA's Steve Stich emphasized yesterday, it is "hugely important" to have two different spacecraft systems flying crew, given the needed redundancy it offers the agency. But as Stich also noted, the 330 requirements are the same for Starliner as they were for SpaceX's Dragon – meaning there should be some institutional knowledge, established in 2020 with SpaceX, of what to expect from the outstanding items on Boeing's checklist.

With NASA expecting Starliner to fly once per year, Boeing is running out of time to complete its six operational missions before 2030 – the planned retirement of the International Space Station.

As one former SpaceX leader told me yesterday: "I think I feel bad for them at this point."

What's up

  • Virgin Orbit future remains in limbo as volatile deal talks continue: The company extended its furlough for most employees as discussions with a pair of potential investors collapsed over the weekend. – CNBC
  • Blue Origin finds last year's failure of the New Shepard cargo mission NS-23 was due to overheating in the rocket's engine nozzle. "Blue Origin is implementing corrective actions, including design changes to the combustion chamber and operating parameters, which have reduced engine nozzle bulk and hot-streak temperatures." The FAA said in a statement that its "mishap" investigation into Blue Origin's NS-23 mission failure "remains open." – CNBC
  • Rocket Lab targets $50 million launch price for Neutron, as the company aims to "compete directly" with SpaceX's Falcon 9 with its coming rocket. – CNBC
  • Sierra Space delays Dream Chaser spaceplane debut, pushing back a targeted launch date of August to near the end of year. – Ars Technica
  • United Launch Alliance test of Vulcan rocket upper stage suffers anomaly, CEO Tory Bruno said in an update. He noted that the affected "Centaur V" upper stage was a test version that was undergoing "extreme" structural qualification at NASA's Marshall center, no one was hurt, and an investigation is underway. "Vulcan will fly when complete." – Bruno
  • SpaceX launches 20th and 21st missions of the year, with a pair of Falcon 9 rockets flying two batches of 56 Starlink satellites to orbit. – Read more / Read more
  • Rocket Lab launches third Electron mission of the year, deploying a pair of satellite for BlackSky. – RocketLab
  • OneWeb's final batch of first-generation satellites reach orbit after Indian launch: With 618 satellites in orbit, OneWeb's constellation will "soon deliver global services." – CNBC
  • New Zealand-based Dawn Aerospace receives certification for spaceplane test flights, with the company aiming to begin flying the rocket-powered MK-II Aurora vehicle within the next month. – Dawn

Industry maneuvers

  • Intelsat and SES near a deal to create a $10 billion satellite giant: The U.S. and Luxembourg based companies are in discussions for a potential merger, the companies confirmed, with an agreement possible in the next few weeks. – Bloomberg
  • Globalstar raising $200 million in debt from "an affiliate of Värde Partners and others," which will be used to repay the remaining $148 million or so from the 2019 EchoStar SATS facility. – Globalstar
  • German rocket builder Isar Aerospace raised $165 million in a new round, bringing its total raised to over $330 million. The company's inaugural launch of its Spectrum rocket is targeting the second half of this year from Norway. – Isar
  • ABL raises $60 million through STRATFI program: AFWERX, an arm of the Air Force Research Laboratory, will give the rocket builder $30 million in government funding under the Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) program, with a matching $30 million from the company's existing investors. – ABL
  • Spire awarded five-year NOAA contract, for up to $59 million from NOAA. – Spire
  • Startup Impact Observatory raises $5.9 million, with the company aiming to create an artificial intelligence-powered system for satellite imagery. – Impact Observatory
  • Planet acquiring Slovenian company Sinergise, for an undisclosed amount, in its sixth acquisition to date. Sinergise built a satellite data analysis platform and is a long-standing partner of Planet's, which expects the acquisition to further access to European markets. – CNBC
  • Kathy Lueders is retiring from NASA: One of the most powerful women at the space agency, and its top human spaceflight official, Lueders announced her retirement after more than 30 years at the agency. Lueders called the decision "difficult," and thanked NASA "for the opportunity of a lifetime." Ken Bowersox will become the new head of Space Operations on May 1. – Lueders
  • Joe Landon named CEO of new Lockheed Martin venture Crescent Space: The defense giant established Crescent as a subsidiary, to provide "infrastructure-as-a-service for lunar missions." It will own and operate the Parsec constellation – small satellites developed by Lockheed Martin that are planned to launch in 2025 to provide communications and navigation services between the Earth and the Moon. – Lockheed Martin
  • Jon Olansen named manager of the NASA's Gateway program, taking over for the retiring Dan Hartman. Olansen has been with the Gateway program since its start. – NASA
  • Sean McDaniel stepping down as CEO of ATLAS Space Operations: He said he will continue as an advisor for the Michigan-based ground systems software company's "go-forward strategy." – McDaniel

Market movers

  • Spire and Momentus receive delisting warnings, after their stocks' slipped below $1. The companies have about six months to get their stock prices back above that level, and both companies may conduct reverse stock splits in order to get back in compliance. – CNBC
  • Redwire Q4 results sees revenue and backlog continue to climb: The company brought in $53.7 million in fourth-quarter revenue, up 31% from the same period a year ago. Its total backlog of orders nearly doubled to $465.1 million as of the end of 2022, compared to the end of 2021. – CNBC
  • Planet reports Q4 results with another record quarter of revenue, and it finished its fiscal year 2023 calendar at the top end of its revenue forecast. Its Q4 adjusted EBITDA loss of $17.7 million, was slightly wider than a year prior, with revenue of $53 million. Planet forecast fiscal year 2024 revenue between $248 million to $268 million. – CNBC

On the horizon

  • Mar. 30: Astra reports Q4 results after the bell.
  • Mar. 31: AST SpaceMobile reports Q4 results before the bell.
  • Mar. 31: SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches SDA Tranche 0 mission from California.
  • Apr. 3: NASA announces astronauts for Artemis II lunar mission.