Commercial Crew Program: SpaceX vs. Boeing Delays
Last Friday, the day before SpaceX's Elon Musk was to make his annual update presentation about his BFR / Starship / Super Heavy rocket, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine released this statement via Twitter:
Much has been said about this statement and its various interpretations. Jim Bridenstine has since given interviews to clarify his opinion on SpaceX's Starship and Crew Dragon progress. Elon Musk has joked about the delay of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket built by primary contractor Boeing. And many have pointed out Boeing is also a Commercial Crew Program partner and its Starliner uncrewed and crewed demonstration missions have also been delayed.
Is it fair to single out SpaceX, which Jim Bridenstine has since clarified was not his intention? How does SpaceX's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) delay compare to Boeing's? To attempt to shed light on theses delays, we have compared the announced dates of SpaceX's first crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) called Demo-2 with Boeing's first crewed mission to the ISS called Boeing Crewed Flight Test or Boe-CFT.
In its announcement of CCP awards to SpaceX and Boeing five years ago, NASA hoped the partner companies would send their first missions with astronauts to the ISS in 2017. Since then, numerous technical and budget delays have led to significant setbacks. Congress has not funded CCP at the amount requested by the previous and current presidential administrations. In April of this year, an accident destroyed SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. Boeing has also had its share of unexpected technical difficulties while testing its Starliner capsule. Schedules continue to slip.
Currently, neither company has a set date for their first crewed missions to the ISS. SpaceX has indicated it hopes to launch Demo-2 in the first quarter of 2020. In an interview on Saturday evening, Elon Musk stated he hoped the mission was 3 to 4 months out. However, in a following interview, Jim Bridenstine cast doubt on that timeline. Boeing's last publicly announced Boe-CFT mission launch date remains November 30, 2019, however most believe this date will also slip into 2020. Both companies are at least 3 months from launch.
Here we compare publicly announced crew test mission launch dates for both companies from both government and industry source announcements. In most cases, only a month and year was given, so we assumed a launch date of the first of the month for simplicity. Similarly, we assumed January 1, 2017 for the initial target launch dates for both companies as an over-simplification.
Both SpaceX and Boeing have experiences large delays in their schedule. Their delays closely track each other. At no point is one company significantly “ahead” of the other. It would be unfair to single out one company's delays over the other's.
Although it is an apples-to-oranges comparison, let's take a look at the developmental progress of two larger SpaceX and Boeing rocket development programs. Both programs have changed names, designs, and objectives over the years, so date-by-date tracking would be unfair.
Initially announced as the Mars Colonial Transporter with an approximate development start date of 2012 (with mentions even earlier) and since renamed the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), Big Falcon/F__ Rocket (BFR), and Starship / Super Heavy, SpaceX's heavy lift rocket has undergone vast design changes in its lifetime. Three years ago, Elon Musk announced an uncrewed test mission as early as 2018. In his latest announcement, Elon Musk stated he hopes to launch an orbital test flight in 2020 and commercial payloads on in 2021, although many recognize this dates are “aspirational”.
It can be argued that NASA's Ares program (including the heavy lift rocket Ares V), largely built by Boeing with contracts awarded in 2007, morphed into the current Space Launch System. But to be completely fair, we'll consider the beginning of SLS development in 2011. The first development mission was estimated to be in 2017. Its first mission, Artemis-1, is now scheduled for no earlier than November 2020, although unofficially it is no earlier than 2021.
Both super heavy lift vehicles SpaceX and NASA/Boeing are developing have comparable development start times, schedule delays, and currently estimated target dates. They are different vehicles with different funding sources and different missions. Nonetheless, their development timelines do not significantly differ. It will be interesting to compare how the development of these two vehicles progress along with similar heavy lift vehicle developments by Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance.