It went off without a hitch.
One week ago, SpaceX conducted its first unmanned demonstration launch of a "Crew Dragon" space capsule -- "Demo-1." Designed to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station and back, SpaceX's new spaceship promises to relieve the American space program of the need to write multihundred-million-dollar checks to subsidize the Russian space program. It will also empower NASA astronauts to leave Earth in their own spaceships -- for the first time since President Obama terminated the Space Shuttle program eight years ago.
It's great news for just about everybody...well, maybe everybody but Boeing (NYSE: BA).
SpaceX's Crew Dragon carried a test dummy named "Ripley" to the International Space Station last week. Next step: Carrying actual astronauts to ISS. Image source: NASA.
How it happened
Lifting off from Kennedy Space Center at 2:49 a.m. EST on March 2, the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle rocketed into the skies over Florida, dispatched Crew Dragon to overtake and dock with the Space Station, then gently landed on its retrojets, at sea, on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship.
About 27 hours later, Crew Dragon itself completed its journey to the International Space Station, docked autonomously, and was successfully opened and boarded by astronauts on board the ISS. And finally, just yesterday morning, Crew Dragon detached from ISS and returned to Earth to be recovered at sea.
What happens next
SpaceX intends to reuse the recovered Crew Dragon to conduct an in-flight abort test in April. Assuming that goes well, the company will proceed to conduct a manned test flight -- "Demo-2" -- perhaps in July, carrying two astronauts to take up their posts aboard ISS. But already, Crew Dragon has taken a big step toward proving itself the first-ever privately developed, human-rated spacecraft in history.
Can Boeing match it?
What it means to Boeing
Boeing, of course, was the other company that NASA partnered with to begin privately contracted work ferrying astronauts to and from ISS. NASA initially awarded SpaceX 38% less money ($2.6 billion) to design and build (and fly) its Crew Dragon than it awarded Boeing ($4.2 billion) to design, build, and fly the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. Ostensibly, this was because Boeing was the better-known entity, and presumed to have a better chance of building a working spaceship. And yet, it was SpaceX that completed its capsule first -- and now it's Boeing that must play catch-up.
At last report, Boeing was still targeting an uncrewed April test flight for Starliner, dubbed its "Orbital Flight Test," to be followed by a crewed demonstration in August.
Now, technically, this April/August timeline means that Boeing is only about a month behind SpaceX in flying its own space taxi. But in fact, Boeing may be lagging even further than that. In June of last year, an "anomaly" prevented Boeing from successfully completing its pad abort test (in which a capsule on the ground is blasted away from its launcher, ensuring the crew will be able to escape safely from an exploding rocket in an actual launch situation). SpaceX passed this test way back in 2015. Boeing plans to redo its pad abort test in May.
It's not known if Boeing will also be required to do an in-flight abort test of Starliner, to match SpaceX's planned in-flight abort test with Crew Dragon. If it doesn't, though, then arguably this will mean that Crew Dragon has proven itself even safer than Starliner, by virtue of having completed more safety tests -- which could make it harder for NASA to justify continuing to pay Boeing more money than it pays to SpaceX for the same work.
If this is how things work out, Boeing could find its profit margins in space -- currently 6.9%, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence -- pinched in the future.
The plan going forward
Since the original "Commercial Crew Program" contracts were awarded back in 2014, NASA funding for development of SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner has climbed to $3.1 billion and $4.8 billion, respectively. Going forward, though, the plan is for the costs of crew transport to ISS by both companies to equalize -- at roughly $58 million per "seat" (which is already a big discount to the $82 million that Roscosmos charges NASA for each astronaut it carries on its Soyuz capsules).
Thus, it looks like the premium Boeing won at the outset of the Commercial Crew Program is already slated to sunset.
And SpaceX could win even more revenue than Boeing for its Commercial Crew missions, because its larger Crew Dragon capsule incorporates an unpressurized "trunk" capable of hauling 14 cubic meters of cargo in addition to its seven astronaut seats. Thus, SpaceX missions should theoretically expect to receive payment for both crew transport and cargo delivery services, whereas Starliner missions would carry only astronauts -- and be paid only for carrying astronauts.
Whether or not Boeing succeeds in getting its Orbital Flight Test off on schedule next month, it looks like SpaceX is already winning this space race.
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