Boeing’s on Life Support, as NASA Going for Artemis1 Launch Ends Up Only Going for Lunch—Again
Has there ever been a more iconic corporate failure to equal the self-inflicted demise of Boeing? We’ll take a look at the Boeing Artemis1-NASA launch problems in a moment, but first a little history.
Boeing once had a lock on American commercial aircraft production
Their only international competitor was Airbus, a British-French heavily government subsidized producer of commercial planes. And they got an order or two in the U.S. from time to time, but not enough to shake anyone up in Seattle.
But the wise learn to pay attention to close competitors because they keep you honest and on your toes. Sadly, that wisdom was ignored at Boeing. Through several administrations they chose to put profit ahead of engineering and forgot that even abandoned chickens sometimes come home to roost.
Abandoned chicken #1: In 2001 Boeing moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago
Corporate claimed it was a strategic move to be closer to their customers. But the fact is that the steak-houses, opera, art museums and wealthy northern suburbs in Chicago made Seattle look a bit small-townish. The ability to attract and hold high level executives was another excuse, but Boeing’s Seattle based unions and engineers smelled a rat and morale took a big hit.
What’s made Boeing great ever since Bill Boeing founded it in 1916 was its engineering-reverent executive suite. Engineering innovation and excellence made the company an industry leader for half a century. I’ve toured the Boeing facility in Everett, Washington, the largest building in the world by volume at 13 million cubic meters and it’s a sight worth seeing. Union employees are expensive as well, but there’s a reason because highly skilled builders of aircraft are essential to such safety reliant production.
Both lives and reputation are at stake. But coasting on their past engineering skills, Boeing hadn’t brought a totally redesigned plane into production for decades. The Boeing 737MAX is and was a worked over 1960s design.
Abandoned chicken #2: Boeing opens a non-union aircraft plant in Charleston, South Carolina
Unable to break its Seattle based unions, the company decided to move production of their Dreamliner and 737MAX where the climate was more attractive to open shops. Long story short, the 737-MAX was a disaster. History shows that the MAX was lethal to fly and a disaster both economically and reputationally for Boeing. 346 people died in two crashes--Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019, less than five months apart.
Some employees who build the MAX in Charleston said publicly they would never fly in any plane manufactured in that facility nor allow a family member to do so.
Abandoned chicken #3: The FAA allows Boeing to certify its own planes
Not to stray too far from my ‘abandoned chicken’ metaphor, certifying the safety of your own product is a bit like allowing the fox to certify safety in the chicken coop.
Four years after self-certification began, fires aboard Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner jets led to the grounding of the fleet and a wave of questions about whether self-certification had affected the FAA’s oversight. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation alleged unsatisfactory oversight of manufacturing processes by both the FAA and Boeing.
An Inspector General report estimated that the FAA conducted oversight on only about 4 percent of all parts suppliers on new jets. That’s not super cool, but the FAA neglected to certify the completed aircraft at all, trusting the fox for that duty.
Abandoned chicken #4: Boeing again moves its headquarters
If pioneering design, engineering expertise and manufacturing oversight are no longer priorities, then damn-the-torpedoes and move the corporate headquarters.
Having all but washed their hands of any future in a commercial airliner business that had only one competitor, the wisemen at Boeing opted to snuggle up closer to their last profitable chicken coop—the federal government.
Carry me back to old Virginny
As the song says, “that's where the cotton, corn and taters grow.” Arlington, Virginia is also close to the government procurement offices and for Boeing, that’s where the cotton, corn and taters really grow. In 2015 alone, Boeing had contracts totaling $16.6 billion with the government. Of course that’s only a single year and doesn’t include any classified military funding, but you get my drift.
And so we finally come to Boeing and NASA’s Artemis1 moon rocket
Ah well, it’s rare to see an example of a corporation sucking at the government teat and rarer yet to see Boeing do it in public.
NASA officials in 2012 estimated that the Artemis1 program would cost $6 billion to develop, be ready to launch in 2017 and carry a $500 million per launch price tag. Sounds a bit pricey, but then I can’t even afford a new Subaru Outback and, after all, this is our government. In the ten years since that estimate, things have gotten sticky.
Damned if there isn’t always a challenge at hand
The challenge at hand is accelerating a capsule that can survive far beyond earth's atmosphere to the enormous speeds needed to get there, requiring some 8.8 million pounds of force. What it took to do that, according to NASA, comes to $93 billion thus far spent on the Artemis1 project.
Well I guess they knew that in 2012.
But hold your breath
They missed the development cost by 15 ½ times and, at $4.1 billion each, failed to get the launch cost right by a factor of a little over 8 times. Which isn’t at all cool, because they plan four launches in the cycle. Let’s see now: $93 billion and then four launches at $4.1 billion, that $16.4 billion and if I remember my grade school arithmetic that adds up to $109.4 billion.
Yep, the move to Arlington probably made sense.
And then there’s those embarrassing launch delays
Boeing can’t keep the damned thing from leaking fuel.
(PBS Sept 9, 2022) CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA is replacing leaky seals in its moon rocket at the pad in hopes of launching it on its first test flight by the end of this month.
Managers said Thursday they will conduct another test after the repairs to ensure all hydrogen fuel leaks are plugged. If that test goes well — and if the Space Force extends a flight safety waiver — then NASA could take another stab at launching the 322-foot rocket in late September. Otherwise, the rocket will return to the hangar for additional work, delaying liftoff until at least October.
If the Space Force extends a flight safety waiver? Man, that’s encouraging
(PBS) A fuel leak and then an engine problem during final liftoff preparations led NASA to call off the launch of its mighty new moon rocket Monday on its debut flight with three test dummies aboard. The next launch attempt will not take place until Friday at the earliest and could be put off until next month.
As precious minutes ticked away Monday morning, NASA repeatedly stopped and started the fueling of the Space Launch System rocket with nearly 1 million gallons of super-cold hydrogen and oxygen because of a leak of highly explosive hydrogen. The leak happened in the same place that saw seepage during a dress rehearsal back in the spring.
Then, NASA ran into new trouble when it was unable to properly chill one of the rocket’s four main engines, officials said. Engineers continued working to pinpoint the source of the problem after the launch postponement was announced.
Then Paul Martin (NASA Inspector General) gets in the conversation
(Wall Street Journal) Mr. Martin’s office had flagged Boeing miscalculations related to the scope of the project, welding problems and other troubles. “There was poor planning and poor execution,” he said in congressional testimony earlier this year.
Oh damn, that old poor planning and execution bugaboo again. Thought we left that back in Chicago…or was it Seattle?
Boeing Chief Executive David Calhoun said recently he didn’t want to expose the company to significant financial risk with SLS. He told the trade publication Aviation Week: “I want to prove it all out to be ready, but I’m not going to do silly things, like lose money for 10 years.”
But didn’t Elon Musk at SpaceX say something about costs?
Yeah, here it is:
NASA's Artemis plan relies on the success of another monster rocket as well: SpaceX's Starship. The agency last year awarded SpaceX with a $2.9 billion contract to develop a moon-specific version of the rocket to serve as the crew lunar lander for the Artemis III mission. Musk estimates launch costs at $10 million.
In case you’re not paying close attention by now (and who could blame you?) that’s 410 times less per launch
I guess there’s not much comparative-cost shopping going on at NASA these days. But then everybody’s got to remember it’s not real money.
It’s government money.
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