Commercial Rockets


This is a traditional conical capsule which looks a lot like an Orion, only smaller and with fewer windows — one big square one and two little round ones, one of which is on the door. It also comes from a ULA partner, but the two have less in common than you’d expect. As hinted by the “liner” name, this comes from Boeing (the part which in a former life was mostly McDonnell Douglas)... but they got it from a smaller aerospace company named Bigelow, who started from a project originally called “Orion Lite” (which got early assistance from Lockheed’s Orion team) and diverged from there. So yeah, they may not have much in common, but originally they were supposed to have. They reached a point where they decided to throw out the Orion heritage and start clean; that was the best way to achieve lite-ness.

(Bigelow is a name we might have heard a lot more from. They were planning and designing the first private, for-profit space station! They have tested a small scale version of it as a module on the ISS. It’s inflatable! And then they want to put one in orbit around the moon. Robert Bigelow also runs a hotel chain, and his eventual goal is to own hotels in space. There’s a rumor that he may be a UFO believer. The plan was to lift their station on a Vulcan — ULA would apparently be some sort of partner in the venture. One claimed advantage of the soft inflatable material is that it should be much better at blocking both radiation and micrometeorites than sheet metal is, though the tests of this in the small test version on the space station failed to bear out any claimed benefits on the radiation level. Unfortunately Bigelow laid off its entire workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. They claim they will rehire them someday, but many are not believing this.)

Unlike the Orion or the Dragon, this has no stated ambitions to go any further from Earth than the space station. It could ride on any appropriately sized launch vehicle, and seat up to seven people in an 11 cubic meter cabin... but IIS flights will be limited to four seats, just as with the Dragon 2. The size and dry mass and interior volume are roughly similar to those of the Dragon, though the shape is shorter and wider. It has a service module which is also short and wide, with four midsized rocket nozzles rather than one large one, solar cells on the back between the nozzles, and heat radiators around the sides. For some reason the four nozzles are angled slightly outward. Actually it has three different sizes of motors: tiny for reaction control, small for orbital maneuvering, and the bigger four for launch escape (which look undersized for the job), all sharing the same fuel supply as far as I know. The reason the launch escape is divided into four is that the service module is hollow, with a little trunk area under the solar cells. Total mass with the service module fuelled is about 13 tons, just a hair more than the Dragon. (I don’t know the dry mass without the service module but I’m guessing around 7 tons.)

They hope the capsule can be reusable for up to 100 flights, whereas the Orion is only trying for ten at the most. For the near term, they’ll launch the Starliner with an Atlas V, then presumably switch to a Vulcan. They use airbags for landing on dirt. Unlike the Orion’s proposed bags, which would have had to wrap awkwardly around the sides, the Starliner’s approach is to jettison the heat shield while suspended by the parachutes, so the airbags can come right out the bottom. I guess replacing the heat shield each time is a pretty good way to make a capsule last for a hundred flights.

As mentioned, the Starliner’s escape rockets are part of the service module. Once docked, they could use them to boost the station’s orbit, because the module is going to be discarded anyway. This needs doing on a fairly regular basis, and other service modules, notably the one used on the ATV cargo canister and since given to the Orion, have performed this orbit-raising service in the past. In theory it might be possible for the Dragon to also perform this service, but they have not pursued the option. In fact, I’ve heard a claim that they could not spare the fuel, as its total supply of fuel is apparently quite a bit smaller smaller than that of the Starliner, or has become a lot smaller by the time it reaches the station. Boosting the station while docked to the American end would first require using its gyros to turn the whole thing over so it’s facing backwards. The station also has its own orbit-raising motors in the Russian section, so the job could be done by simply delivering fuel for them instead of by actively pushing the station, but these are disused and possibly no longer functional, so nowadays they always use an attached craft. If nothing better is available they’ll use the tiny thrusters on a Progress capsule, though this is inefficient and tedious. All it all, it needs about four tons a year of propellant to keep the station from falling down, which is about one percent of its total mass. It used to need seven, due to being in a lower orbit so the Shuttle could dock with it. If they ever replace the Soyuz maybe it can go higher.

For years we were in suspense waiting to see which would carry passengers first, the Starliner or the Dragon 2. Originally the Dragon was scheduled much earlier, but SpaceX’s scheduled dates were, as always, more expressions of hope than of confidence. As of the beginning of 2019, the two looked to be roughly neck and neck... then Dragon was the first to pull off an unmanned flight to the space station, and shortly after, rumors started to emerge of further delays for the Starliner, so it might not be ready for crewed flight before the end of the year. But then a static test of the SuperDraco motors on the used Dragon capsule caused an explosion that destroyed the entire craft. So at this point it looked like the odds favored the Starliner being the first to carry astronauts. But it had its own delays, and some of them were also due to difficulty with the launch escape system, which like that of the Dragon uses hypergolic fuel, because the people who run the Space Station don’t approve of docking solid rockets to it. They are not safe in an environment which is being alternately baked and frozen sixteen times a day. Apparently Boeing’s escape rockets have suffered from fuel leaks.

After resolving the escape rocket issues, their launch abort test had a chute that didn’t open, and an excessive release of hypergolic fuel, which is too toxic to tolerate leaks of. And then, once they finally launched it to orbit uncrewed, to catch up to where the Dragon got to the previous spring, it went off course and didn’t reach the space station, due to a software error in the service module that threw off its clock and caused it to waste fuel. Then they spotted another software issue in the nick of time, which without a quick patch, would have made it unsafe to detatch the service module for reentry.  Upon later scrutiny it also came out that a few of the reaction control thrusters had not worked right, again due to software, which apparently had an incorrect map of which thruster was which. NASA found that the whole QA process at Boeing was substandard — an issue that also played a part in the 737 Max scandal. For a while the possibility stayed open that once debugging was completed, the next flight attempt would be crewed, but eventually Boeing decided to redo the test launch at their own expense, which pushed the crewed flight out to 2021. By the time all this was settled, the Dragon had flown two test pilots to the station and back without incident, and before that second test flight went up, Dragon launched two full crews of four. And then, when the second test launch rolled out to the pad, they had to scrub because sensors reported an incorrectly set valve. They tried to quickly resolve this, but it turned out to be not one wrong valve, but thirteen. They had to roll the whole rocket back to the assembly building. They then spent days coaxing one valve after another back into operation, using “mechanical, electrical, and thermal techniques”, which doesn’t sound reassuring for how reliable the unstuck valves will be in the future. Finally they had to ship the whole capsule back to the factory.

At this point, the Starliner is looking like a clusterfuck. Sure, 99% of it is fine, but in aerospace being 99% right gets people killed.