Elon Musk has once again left his competition behind in the new space race. And this time without lifting a finger: NASA is assigning two astronauts to the spacecraft Dragon Crew of SpaceX after spending months training them for the first manned launch of the Starliner from Boeing, SpaceX’s only serious rival to travel to the ISS, now lagging behind “indefinite”.
It may seem like a trifle, but Starliner was Musk’s only real competition for orbital flight in the United States. With his aggressive rapid development strategy and reuse of ships and rockets, Musk has gone from being the poor sassy in the industry to one step away from becoming a galactic emperor.
Boeing delays its ship “indefinitely”
The reassignment of the crew – advanced by a deep throat to the blog Ars Technica – is a new sample that Musk follows. Light years competition, both American and international.
Boeing has had multiple problems with its Starliner. The program has had numerous delays as Musk made steady progress with his Space Dragon 2. His first test flight – in December 2019 – nearly ended in total disaster. The unmanned ship was going to dock automatically at the international station, but the control software – with a million lines of code – was riddled with blunders and caused the ship to barely reach orbit. NASA canceled the docking and the spacecraft continued to have problems, saving itself on reentry by sheer luck.
The space agency ordered a safety investigation at Boeing and the troubleshooting work lasted 20 months. The company undertook to conduct a second unmanned test mission at a cost of $ 410 million paid out of his own pocket, but had problems again on the same launch pad.
Boeing’s problems launching Starliner with guarantees will have serious ramifications. Ars Technica sources say this crew reassignment to SpaceX will be followed by others, which will see SpaceX launch up to four missions in a row to the ISS.
Orion has problems too
Another ship with problems is the Orion, one of the fundamental pieces of the Artemis mission, the first will take astronauts to the Moon. The ship developed by the aerospace giant Lockheed Martin also seems plagued with errors that are delaying its development and, logically, the lunar mission.
SpaceX – which won NASA’s contest to bring astronauts from the Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit to the surface of our satellite using its Starship spacecraft – says they could go the entire way on the Starship. Musk’s new spacecraft appears to be making good progress toward its first orbital flight, but it still has a long way to go before it is ready for an interplanetary mission.
The disastrous ridiculousness of Blue Origin
Blue Origin, the only company that in theory could have overshadowed SpaceX has turned out to be a real failure. Despite its suborbital tourist flights – promoted with great fanfare although they have no technological or historical relevance – the company of Jeff Bezos still not taking a ship into orbit.
Blue Origin is mired in a multitude of problems here on Earth. Its brightest engineers have left the company, unhappy with the tantrum of the billionaire in court afterward, who has sued NASA after being unable to win the lunar shuttle contest against SpaceX. Other workers have denounced a toxic company culture, which has also led to dropouts.
The latest problem is even more serious: 21 employees have harshly criticized the security of Blue Origin technology in an open letter. The letter is so harsh that it has set in motion the inspection mechanisms of the American federal aviation authorities.
Ultimately, Bezos is not Musk’s competence right now and he will not be for many years, no matter how hard he tries to be in the photo with William Shatner. The actor who played Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series is terrified to get on the ship that will launch him on a new Blue Origin PR stunt.
China and Russia continue to use outdated technology
Then there is China and Russia, which continue to launch astronauts into orbit with 1950s technology. Unlike SpaceX, both China and Russia continue to launch non-reusable spacecraft and rockets, with the exorbitant cost that this entails.
The Chinese are researching technologies for interplanetary travel, such as ion engines with nuclear reactors. But they are several years (or decades) away from making progress. I have no doubt that one day we will see a reusable Chinese rocket – cloned from the ones from SpaceX – but for now there is no substantial news about it except for the Chinese propaganda announcements.
Meanwhile, the Russians continue to fail more and more and their rockets and space components have become a source of trouble and concern for the entire international space community. The Russian space program crumbles thanks to Putin – more concerned with developing weapons for doomsday – and his henchman Dimitri Rogozin, a guy every industry insider calls corrupt incompetent who is treating the Russian space agency as his cortijo.
The only hope of beating Musk
The reality is that, after Boeing, Musk no longer has an immediate rival to prevent him from becoming the first space power and continue to be so for years and even decades unless China is a surprise or the big American aerospace companies wake up from their slumber at once.
The only company that can end SpaceX’s hegemony is Relativity. It has yet to launch a single rocket, but this startup is working to overtake SpaceX on the left by radically changing the paradigm of spacecraft manufacturing.
Its technology, as I have already told in these pages, “is the aerospace equivalent of the revolution that Henry Ford introduced with the assembly line in the automotive industry” with “gigantic 3D printers that turn aluminum into fuel tanks and engines.” Almost all parts of Relativity’s rockets are made by 3D printing. The smaller ones use lasers and alloys that are made on the spot from mineral powders to create fuel injectors and other machines that were previously extremely complex and are now made in one piece.
It remains to be seen if they work, but what is clear is that it will take more than reiterating existing technology to catch up and surpass SpaceX. To beat Musk you have to play by his rules: innovate radically without fear of failure.