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Virgin Galactic teams up with Boeing for motherships

Virgin Galactic says it will partner with Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia-based Boeing subsidiary, to design and build next-generation motherships for its suborbital rocket planes.

The motherships will serve as flying launch pads for Virgin Galactic’s next-gen, Delta-class spacecraft, just as a carrier airplane called White Knight Two or VMS Eve has served for the company’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane.

The system’s design is an upgraded version of the SpaceShipOne system that was funded almost two decades ago by Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

VSS Unity and VMS Eve have been undergoing test flights for years, and commercial suborbital space missions are scheduled to begin next year at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Hundreds of customers have reserved spots on future flights.

The next-generation mothership and rocket plane are due to start revenue-generating missions in 2025. The partnership announced today will cover the production of two motherships.

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Starliner space taxi’s success paves way for crewed flight

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule landed safely amid the sands of New Mexico after a six-day test flight to the International Space Station and back.

This trip was uncrewed — assuming you don’t count a sensor-equipped mannequin nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer as a crew member. But living, breathing astronauts could fly on Starliner as soon as this year.

All went well today with Starliner’s descent from the space station and its parachute-aided, airbag-cushioned landing at White Sands Missile Range, Cheers arose at NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, where the final stages of the flight test were being tracked.

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Starliner docks with space station after ‘excruciating’ wait

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi docked with the International Space Station for the first time today during an uncrewed flight test, marking one more big step toward being cleared to carry astronauts to orbit. But it wasn’t easy.

“The last few hours have been excruciating,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, acknowledged during a post-docking teleconference for journalists.

Despite a few glitches, Lueders and other leaders of the NASA and Boeing teams said they were generally pleased with Starliner’s performance, beginning with its May 19 launch from Florida and continuing with today’s hours-long series of orbital maneuvers.

“We’ve learned so much from this mission over the past 24 hours,” Lueders said.

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Boeing’s Starliner space taxi lifts off for second test flight

Two and a half years after an initial orbital flight test fell short, Boeing is trying once again to put its CST-100 Starliner space capsule through an uncrewed trip to the International Space Station and back.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket sent Starliner spaceward from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 6:54 p.m. ET (3:54 p.m. PT) today. Boeing and NASA are hoping that this second orbital flight test, known as OFT-2, will pave the way for Starliner’s first crewed flight later this year.

Within OFT-2’s first hour, Starliner separated from the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage and executed an engine burn to reach its intended orbit. “It’s a major milestone to get behind us, but it is really just the beginning,” NASA commentator Brandi Dean said. “We’ve got a number of demonstrations now that the Starliner will have to go through ahead of its International Space Station arrival.”

Boeing has received billions of dollars from NASA to develop Starliner as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for sending astronauts into orbit. NASA’s arrangement with SpaceX and Boeing has been compared to a taxi service, with the space agency paying the spacecraft providers for rides.

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Boeing is moving its HQ from Chicago to Virginia

More than two decades after the Boeing Co. moved its headquarters from its Seattle birthplace to Chicago, the aerospace giant is planning to do it again — this time, heading for Arlington, Va.

Boeing confirmed a report about the move that appeared today in The Wall Street Journal. Arlington already serves as the headquarters for Boeing’s defense, space and security business unit, and the company said it would develop a new research and technology hub in Northern Virginia.

“We are excited to build on our foundation here in Northern Virginia,” Boeing’s president and CEO, Dave Calhoun, said in a news release. “The region makes strategic sense for our global headquarters given its proximity to our customers and stakeholders, and its access to world-class engineering and technical talent.”

Boeing didn’t provide a timetable for the HQ switchover.

The move to Arlington in the Washington, D.C., area reflects a classic corporate strategy to have the company’s executive offices close to where the federal government’s purchasing decisions are made.

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Boeing hires three giants to build its billion-dollar cloud

The billion-dollar competition to provide Boeing with cloud computing services is finished, and the winner is … a three-way split. Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft are all getting a share of the business, Boeing announced today.

In a LinkedIn post, Susan Doniz, Boeing’s chief information officer and senior VP for information technology and data analytics, called it a “multi-cloud partnership.”

“This represents a significant investment in the digital tools that will empower Boeing’s next 100 years,” she wrote. “These partnerships strengthen our ability to test a system — or an aircraft — hundreds of times using digital twin technology before it is deployed.”

Doniz said that becoming more cloud-centric will provide Boeing with “global scalability and elasticity without having to predict, procure, maintain and pay for on-premises servers.” Financial details relating to the multi-cloud partnership were not disclosed.

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‘Downfall’ recounts 737 MAX mess as a tech tragedy

The missteps traced in “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” — Netflix’s new documentary about Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX jet — are the stuff of Greek tragedy.

Under the direction of filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of Robert F. Kennedy, “Downfall” recounts how the aerospace giant cut corners in a race to compete against Airbus, and pressed mightily to minimize the known problems with a computerized flight control system that was capable of causing the 737 MAX to go into a fatal dive.

The result? Not just one, but two catastrophic crashes — first in Indonesia, in 2018, and only months later in Ethiopia. The combined death toll amounted to 346 people. The jets were grounded for nearly two years while Boeing worked on a fix to the control system.

When the Indonesian crash occurred, the root cause seemed to be shrouded in uncertainty. But subsequent investigations showed that Boeing knew the cause had to do with tweaks in an automated software routine known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.

In the early stages of those investigations, I struggled to explain what MCAS was supposed to do (keep planes from stalling under extreme conditions) and what it ended up doing (forcing planes into a dive). “Downfall” uses graphics and re-enactments to show how MCAS and other points of failure on the 737 MAX figured in the tragedy.

The film also lays out evidence from emails and other documents showing that when the 737 MAX was undergoing certification for flight, Boeing was desperate to avoid providing pilots with extra training, at extra cost — so desperate that the company hid the MCAS software’s capabilities from pilots, airlines and regulators.

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Boeing satellite internet cleared for takeoff

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized Boeing to put 147 satellites in orbit for a broadband internet constellation, adding to a list of competitors including Amazon, OneWeb and SpaceX.

Boeing’s constellation was proposed in 2017, but it took four years for the FCC to iron out the technicalities surrounding the plan. Most of the satellites will circle the globe at a height of about 650 miles. Fifteen of them will go into highly inclined orbits at an altitude between 17,000 and 27,500 miles.

To comply with requirements laid out in the FCC’s order, half of the satellites must be launched by 2027, with the rest in place by 2030.

Boeing’s aim is to provide high-speed satellite data services to consumers on a global basis — echoing the goals set for SpaceX’s Starlink service, OneWeb’s constellation and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, among others. SpaceX is currently leading the pack by providing limited service via more than 1,600 satellites. OneWeb is due to begin limited service this winter, and this week, Amazon asked the FCC to authorize the launch of its first two prototype satellites next year.

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Blue Origin leads team for ‘Orbital Reef’ space outpost

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is joining forces with Colorado-based Sierra Space and a host of other partners, including Boeing, to propose building a space-based “mixed-use business park” called Orbital Reef.

The plan, announced today at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, is among about a dozen proposals being submitted to NASA for a share of development funds under a program aimed at preparing the way for replacing the International Space Station.

If Blue Origin and its partners follow through on the plan, the basic version of Orbital Reef would be in low Earth orbit sometime during the latter half of the 2020s — in time for an orderly transition from ISS operations. That version would include power-generating capability, a core module with picture windows looking down on Earth, a habitat provided by Sierra Space and a Boeing-built science lab.

Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, Brent Sherwood, told me that Orbital Reef would cost “at least an order of magnitude less” than the International Space Station. The development cost for the International Space Station is typically estimated at $100 billion, which would imply a cost in the range of $10 billion for Orbital Reef.

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Starliner’s next flight to orbit will slip into 2022

Boeing says its next attempt to send an uncrewed Starliner space taxi to the International Space Station will take place no earlier than the first half of 2022, due to the time needed to fix a valve problem that led to the last-minute cancellation of an August test flight.