This piece was originally published in The Hill.
“Delayed again” has become a familiar phrase for Boeing’s Starliner. Two new issues were discovered with the spacecraft just last month, resulting in an indefinite delay to its crewed debut, originally planned for July. The newest setback adds to the long tale of woe for a vehicle designed to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Starliner was first unveiled 13 years ago, and plans to deorbit the very station it will serve are now seven years away.
But despite the appearance of failure, the Starliner saga in fact reveals governmental policy success: NASA’s decision to simultaneously fund two distinct vehicles to bring astronauts to the ISS — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner — via fixed-price contracts. In a competition for funding with multiple commercial entrants, awarding contracts to two companies provided redundancy and insured NASA against a single company’s failure; fixed-price contracts ensured controlled costs to NASA and to the taxpayer. And some non-selected entrants and concepts awarded initial funding in earlier rounds can still be developed if there is interest outside NASA. This strategy should be replicated moving forward as NASA refocuses on pursuing exploration outside of low-Earth orbit.
NASA launched the Commercial Crew Program, the project behind these spacecraft, to kickstart private-sector transportation of astronauts to the ISS after the retirement of the space shuttle. The initiative involved multiple phases of competition. In 2010, the first phase awarded $50 million in total funding to five companies working on technologies and concepts, not vehicles themselves. Several rounds and awards later, NASA chose SpaceX and Boeing to develop different spacecraft to achieve the same objective: deliver astronauts to the ISS.