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Internally, NASA believes Boeing ahead of SpaceX in commercial crew (arstechnica.com)
130 points by okket 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments



There are a lot of big organizations that seem to understand something that few of us in the software industry ever did:

When you have one vendor they have no reason to give you any special attention. They are min-maxing you against all of their other customers and if you aren’t about to either Give them more money or take it away you fade into the background.

If you have two vendors, they have to pay attention. They have to and get to stay engaged.

If SpaceX is ahead or Boeing is ahead doesn’t matter. What matters if SpaceX is still at the table. If they drop to third or fourth place then they have a real problem.

NASA doesn’t want to give all their contracts to one vendor, and neither should we. That makes things easy this year but fattens then for the slaughter.

As long as Boeing is getting some noteworthy fraction of the contracts they stick around as a goad for SpaceX to try harder. And SpaceX does the same for Boeing.


>If SpaceX is ahead or Boeing is ahead doesn’t matter. What matters if SpaceX is still at the table.

Not only that but SpaceX is delivering commercial payload after commercial payload to orbit while still TESTING new stuff on their rockets while they do all the planning for ITS/BFR... how many launches has Boeing been doing while designing SLS?


That may be useful for stuff you can afford to lose, but during the same period how many spacecraft have Boeing lost.

When a mission takes a decade to plan a build, you go with the launch vehicle most likely to get you to destination successfully. Fail rates matter immensely. You don't want a launch vehicle iterating on your launch.


Whether or not NASA (and by extension Boeing) can afford to lose a mission isn't dependent on how much it costs but on public relations and legislation.

Money has diminishing returns when it comes to mission success rates. A common ballpark example I've heard from JPL PMs: you can spend $500 million on one launch with a 95% chance of putting one satellite in orbit - or - you could spend $250 million per launch on two launches, each with a 80% chance of putting up one satellite. The probability of getting at least one satellite in orbit with the latter scenario is ~96%, higher than than the $500mil/launch option, with an 80% chance of saving 25-75% of the budget for the second launch (depending on scheduling and staff retention costs for that mission).

The problem with the latter option is that the public is swayed more by the absolute number of failures rather than the percentage, especially since NASA's missions usually draw a lot of global publicity. This kind of public pressure effects legislators and eventually starts changing the "cost-benefit" analysis agencies like NASA do until they're chosing the one launch option every time.

The SLS is inseparable as a project from NASA as far as the public is concerned. Even though SpaceX is also heavily funded by NASA historically, Musk's cult of personality has largely saved them from feeling the kind of public pressure NASA has had to deal with in their usual missions. That ability to experiment without PR consequences is invaluable but we'll have to see whether their failure rate is big enough to scare away NASA for manned missions.


The numbers are even better than you're throwing out there. Gotta keep in mind two big factors. A lot of the cost in these missions is not just the satellite hardware but the R&D costs. And the second is that launches are insured, so you'd need to compare the relative rate of insurance more than the expected value of fail rate x satellite cost. I have no idea on insurance costs for e.g. SpaceX vs Boeing launches but I'd be quite surprised if they're not extremely comparable.

But yeah, I think you're really hitting at the heart of the problem that's going to become even more troublesome once we start putting people on Mars. There are a practically unlimited number of ways for something to go wrong. And even if we do everything we possibly can, we're still playing an odds game with extremely high stakes. A sensationalizing media and an ill informed public creates a nasty mix for issues like this.


Insurance doesn't matter for this tradeoff, except maybe in the very short term. If they fly with a high failure rate, their insurance price will go up. At their price point, insurance companies pay attention.


I assumed the parent meant that you don't get the benefit of a lower failure rate until insurers have noticed a pattern of lower failures, so for rare launches you might not achieve a financial benefit.


When a mission is $250m, I wonder how much additional a second identical copy would cost. For example, if $200m of that is R&D, it would only cost $300m for two missions.


The marginal cost of an identical copy is almost always "just" the cost of assembly and testing - which can be astronomical if the mission is pushing the boundaries of technology like the Mars Science Lab or the NuStar x-ray telescope - but for most missions the major cost is R&D leading up to final assembly. For the majority of missions, that second $250 million goes towards engineering an extra 15% success chance for the satellite itself (success rate of the launch vehicle is known). The first $150 million gets you 80%, the second 250 million gets you an extra 15% with a flat $100 mil for launch.

If you budget for two 80% launches, however, $150-200 million gets you two satellites, you spend $125-200 million on launches (you cant wait until your first failure to put money down for the second launch so it's at least a 1.25x multiplier), and $25-100 million on extra staffing costs (you can't risk losing your top PIs/scientists between the first and second launch so you have to pay them the entire time).

Ideally, both options would be evaluated independent of popular sentiment. For manned exploration or cutting edge missions like the Mars rovers, we should strive for that 95% single mission success rate. Otherwise we should err towards getting more science done faster and cheaper.


He's probably referring to tests that don't significantly affect the probability of a successful mission. I don't know anything about how Boeing does this. But I can imagine a contractor going another route where they offer to come up with a new technology and then make the customer pay for all of the testing.

Why kill two birds with one stone when you can get them to pay for you to throw two stones?


+ the successful landings of the early stage reusable rockets. Pretty monumental stuff.


This article isn't about SLS (or BFR). It's about commercial crew, Boeing's CST-100 capsule vs. SpaceX's crewed Dragon. Boeing may well be ahead because unlike SpaceX they consider themselves having one job, and one job only.


And without a reliable rocket to get them up there, those crew capsules are useless.


They have reliable rockets. The CST-100 can launch on any of the Atlas V, Delta IV, or Falcon 9 rockets. All of which are in commercial use.

I think maybe you're confusing with the Orion capsule?


The standard failure mode is that the two vendors reach an understanding and split the market at a comfortable level of effort and progress.


I wonder if it's an understanding of just a natural equilibrium found when two companies iterate on focusing where their money seems to be most successful at earning contracts. Soon enough one company is great at one thing and the other another.


I won't pretend to have studied this at any depth, but my possibly overconfident intuition is that it can be either an outright conspiracy or an unspoken understanding of not stepping on each others toes.

It doesn't matter much; you don't have to be a genius CEO to see what is in both companies interest, conspiracy or not.

The more companies are added to the mix, the less stable the truce becomes, and somewhere around 4-5 I think ruthless competition is empirically the norm.


You see this in Germany vs the US when it comes to grocery store. In DE there are vastly more grocery stores and more grocery store companies. Prices are crazy low. In the US, there is very little overlap, with mega-stores carving out a multiple square mile section of the town.


FWIW, grocery chains in the US have low single digit margins. I don’t think they’re gouging anybody. Also, prices at my local grocery store are frequently lower than at Costco (a warehouse-style store).


Gross Profit vs Net Profit. Gross Profits are in the 20-40% range, Kroger (22%) [1] Safeway (28%) [2] Whole Foods (34%) [3]

Those Net Profits of 1.5% look like a target, not a byproduct of a cut throat business.

Smart and Final, a warehouse and restaurant supply store [4] has a GP of 14%.

[1] https://csimarket.com/stocks/singleProfitabilityRatios.php?c...

[2] https://csimarket.com/stocks/singleProfitabilityRatios.php?c...

[3] https://csimarket.com/stocks/singleProfitabilityRatios.php?c...

[4] https://csimarket.com/stocks/singleProfitabilityRatios.php?c...


You need overhead to run a business. Pointing to GP is nice for a company that can expect overhead to stay the same while they reap the benefits of increasing scale, but all the large grocery chains in the US are already at scale. If there was extra net profit to be had by reducing overhead, they would have done so already.


Or they pull a ULA and merge.


Cartels are illegal in the US because of anti-trust laws?



Can this be summarized as "competition is good for the marketplace"?


Enterprise systems are always like that. You pay for it, then you are invisible and communicate through support tickets.


...by a little bit (mostly due to Boeing's greater familiarity with NASA paperwork requirements.)

"Based on NASA's "schedule risk analysis" from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis' average certification date was December, 2019, for Boeing and January, 2020, for SpaceX."


Based on the linked GAO report, it doesn't even seem like the "little bit" is justified, nevermind the headline that Boeing is in any way meaningfully "ahead". The point of the GAO report is not to assess Boeing's and SpaceX's progress, but to assess NASA's ability to manage the project and its contractors.

From page 10:

> Boeing and SpaceX continue to make progress developing their crew transportation systems, but both contractors have further delayed the certification milestone to early 2019. These changes have occurred as the contractors continue to work to aggressive schedules, and they have had to delay key events regularly. Further delays are likely as the Commercial Crew Program’s schedule risk analysis shows that the certification milestone is likely to further slip.

> In addition, as of mid-June 2018, NASA officials told us that these dates may change soon but that both contractors have not yet provided official updates to their schedules to NASA...While NASA has begun to discuss potential options, it currently does not have a contingency plan for how to ensure an uninterrupted presence on the ISS beyond 2019*

A better headline would be:

NASA can't tell how late Boeing and SpaceX will be with commercial crew


Also probably because "Boeing asked for, and got, 50 percent more funding for the same task" [0]. Despite the mythical man month, 50% more funding on a 5/6 year (current estimate) project can pay your way ahead of the competition on almost any project (that is a really really long time!).

Considering the timeline difference is only 10% (6 months spacex is behind based on 5 year delivery), I would expect Boeing to be much further ahead of spacex than they currently are.

Sounds like spacex will be the real winner in the end IMO due to future contracts as a 50% savings ($1.6 Billion in this case [1]) to wait 10% more time is totally worth it in almost every case.

[0]: from the article: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/07/nasa-commercial-crew...

[1]: https://qz.com/266665/the-us-will-spend-6-8-billion-hiring-b...


SpaceX, on the other hand, is pouring a lot of their own money into shared systems used by the contract. On the third hand, SpaceX is developing both the rocket and capsule, whereas Boeing is using an off-the-shelf ULA vehicle. Boeing's is expendible, SpaceX is making theirs reusable.

Really, it's apples to oranges.


Put like that the fact they are a couple of months behind on an estimate is a massive win for spacex


Yes, but I'd agree with the headline even if it wasn't supported by the article. If I were a betting man I'd place better odds on Boeing making the deliverable date (or slipping by less) than SpaceX. Boeing has a tendency to promise something reasonable, and so long as there's no requirement creep, deliver more or less on schedule. SpaceX has a history of promising the impossible, then actually delivering on it many years late. Based on that alone I'd rather place money on Boeing delivering on time than SpaceX, as much as I really do love SpaceX.


> NASA's "schedule risk analysis"

Last time I looked at this, the firms set their own milestones. So for one, Boeing's milestone deliverable was a PowerPoint presentation; SpaceX's was a crew abort demonstration.


Welcome to the world of government contracting where success depends much more on your ability to work the system then your ability to deliver anything.


>> the world of government contracting

After watching the documentary on the joint strike fighter competition I just think of Boeing as a lobbying organization that happens to make planes.


If you're in the business of making and selling airliners, that's what you have to be. It's why Airbus needed government money to get started: it wasn't just the money they needed, they needed expert diplomats to have some skin in the game for the launch of a credible competitor in that sector to the US manufacturers.

Boeing in the UK has an interesting reputation right now: they were involved in the MoD's bungling of an upgrade to Chinook firmware [1], and stepped in to pick up a contract worth hundreds of millions to basically make some small changes, run the compiler, and put the result on the machines.

The MoD were so embarrassed they basically let Boeing bully them into becoming a full stack outsource service provider on these things. Boeing now run full-page adverts in various news magazines (The Week, The Economist, etc.), explaining why they are so important to the UK and how much they love to "invest" in the UK around the Chinooks.

Eight machines that have opened the door to Boeing being a very central part of the MoD, British Army and RAF for the foreseeable future...

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/jun/04/military.defence


In their defense aerospace is a sector where governments and state-linked mega-corps are probably the largest customer base, especially for high-end gear.


I'm still impressed that SpaceX, with <20 years of experience, is even in the same ballpark as Boeing and its 101 years.


Check out how many of the Space X team have experience leading government space contractors. (https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/space-exploration-te...). They're not going in raw.


As Gwynne Shotwell (President of SpaceX) in some interview said something along the lines: "We are standing on the shoulders of giants"

Basically they didn't start from beginning, but just continues from the point where knowledge has been accumulated over those years.


Having worked at one of Boeing's competitors (not in this specific industry but a similiar one) I think I'd rather sit on top of the rocket built by the big, old, slow defense contractor. I'd hard to overstate how much consideration of making sure edge cases (for both hardware and software) don't kill people is baked into the culture at these companies.

As a taxpayer I think the rocket that moves fast and breaks things is just fine for nonhuman cargo.


There were recently a discussion about NASA insisting in loading propellants when crew is already onboard, and opponents pointing out that it increases the duration of crew sitting in the capsule during a dangerous process of fueling.

It could be a lot of consideration, but if some important area is overlooked, then it's no guarantee safety will improve over some threshold.

Similarly in Russian Soyuz-2 rocket the 2.1b variant adds about 10% of payload - but uses a much more stressed engine on the upper stage. That's the reason Russians don't want to use that variant for manned flights - even though there were lots of flights and rockets with engines like that certified for manned flights.


> even though there were lots of flights and rockets with engines like that certified for manned flights

In the end, a certification doesn't actually mean the rocket won't explode, just that it hasn't so far. For manned missions, certification is necessary but arguably not sufficient.


The GAO report this is based on: https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/693035.pdf.


I find it hard to treat news published by Eric Berger as objective, sadly. He receives special treatment from SpaceX & Elon—for example, its arguable he only had permission to interview Musk and attend the launch of FH from 39A precisely because his articles mainly cast a positive light—and in turn, this clouds his objectiveness when it comes to such reporting. It's quite a shame.


If this allegation were true, it would definitely render the journalist unreliable and ethically compromised. But, this article is in favor of Boeing, not SpaceX, so I'm wondering what you're trying to say..?


I had noticed that he did interview Elon then, with the cool near-the-rocket background. I also noticed that several other journalists interviewed musk from that same overview sight. So he did not have special access. I wondered about that until I saw other journalists with the same vantage and the same background.


Berger is a competent but aggressive journalist who has a bias, but wears it on his sleeve - much like Andy Pasztor. Worth reading, but with a critical eye. Ignore them and you'll be missing out on important scoops and original journalism.


I didn't know that Soyuz flights are scheduled to stop in 2019. I'm not optimistic at all about all that. Manned missions are a whole new level, a level where a single failure could mean the end the road either for SpaceX or Boeing's space department. If I were to put my tinfoil hat on, I would even suggest that Russia managed to deal the end of the Soyuz contracts for when USA is ready to launch their own manned flights, but not reliably so, therefore increasing the probability of them having an accident and looking weak.



This is for certification, not demonstration missions. That capsule is scheduled for the unmanned DM-1 flight, after which will be the manned DM-2 flight, at which point SpaceX will submit its data for final certification in advance of operations flights.

As an aside, the author (Eric Berger) is in no way biased against SpaceX - he's one of the most overtly pro-SpaceX journalists around.


President Bush promised a shuttle replacement by 2014 when he canceled the shuttle.


All presidents promise something for years after their tenure and then proceed with cutting the budget.


Obama cancelled Constellation, then backed the SLS disaster, and told everyone NASA will be going to Mars in 2030.

I think it's pretty safe to assume that NASA will not be going anywhere outside LEO in 2030.

If we are really lucky, it would stop with the manned space expedition charade entirely, and do something useful with those billions of dollars, for a change. Probes, robotics, ecosystem study.


>I think it's pretty safe to assume that NASA will not be going anywhere outside LEO in 2030.

This is certainly not safe to say and in fact is quite unlikely. Multiple separate programs promise to get us beyond LEO by 2030. Whether we'll be on any planetary bodies is questionable, but at the least humans will have made it to lunar DRHO by then.


If we are to leave the planet eventually, some level of skill at keeping people in space is essential.

(N.B. I'm a scientist who would love more dedicated robotic missions. Human spaceflight is important, too.)


If, instead of sending 12 people to the moon, we took that money, and worked on sending hundreds of robots to the moon...

We'd probably have more then zero people on the moon today. And better robots. Or, at least, more than six people in space.


There are things we learned from Apollo with 1960's technology that the best robots today couldn't tell us. The entire past two decades of rover exploration on Mars could have been accomplished by 1 astronaut in a EVA suit with a rock hammer in a couple of hours. Sometimes you actually need a geologist/biologist/botanist there to determine ground truth, and sometimes people ARE more capable than machines. You need both.

Apollo couldn't tell us there was water in the permanently shadowed craters of the lunar poles because they didn't go to the poles, but the Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and LCROSS gave us good reason to think so. The orbiters we sent couldn't tell use the age of the Moon or its likely formation process because you actually need a hand-picked diverse set of rock samples for that, and lots of them. It's not an either/or debate, and shouldn't be one. We need to send both humans AND machines.

And, at the end of the day, basic science is not why we're going to space. It's about spreading the human race beyond the confines of this rock and establishing a permanent and ever lasting space-faring culture. You CAN'T do that with robots alone.


> We'd probably have more then zero people on the moon today.

Unfortunately the opposite could also be true - loss of interest to space research, because, hey, they don't make anything perceivable...

In the awesome game "Bazz Aldrin's Race Into Space" if both (human) players try to perfect the technology, to avoid costly failures with human flights and stop flying for a while, at some point budgets get slashed and the game stops. I suspect it could be a possibility in the real world. Fortunately, by now we both depend on space enough and have enough technology to keep flying.


The benefit of using robots is that failures are less costly, and that you don't have to stop flying if a mission fails.


Robots do have a lot of benefits in space. Lots of them weren't obvious in 1950-s, but robots came a long, long way since then.

So apparently did manned spaceflight. Tito, Shuttleworth, Olsen, Ansari, Simonyi, Garriot, Laliberte flights demonstrate it's much more within reach now than before. Same could be said regarding private makers of rockets, spacecrafts and even space stations. Not only we see the push to increase the new industry, with new services to humanity and new taxes to governments - we're actually learning to do things in the environment (the learning itself happens there) which is quite different from where we evolved in.

And when we talk about actually living in space - including doing really complex things, like unexpected actions across the specter of what might be needed when you're actually trying to be successful for long periods of time - many robotics specialists, last time I've checked, admit that human flights are actually less costly than robotic ones. In other words, if you want to have a big enough exploration program for space, you ought to include people into that.

Fortunately flying to space becomes easier as we learn more.


Any post that suggests humans should not explore space will be the recipient of my derision. We can't and shouldn't sit on this rock for the next 100 years. And we as a world can afford both manned and unmanned exploration.


President Bush also proclaimed "Mission Accomplished".


Also declared "Brownie" was doing a "Heckuva job!"

I think it is the nature of most politicians to "spin" to the point of "spectacular falsehoods".


> I think it is the nature of most politicians to "spin" to the point of "spectacular falsehoods".

In recent times it appears to be more a case of "produce spectacular falsehoods, then attempt to spin it"


Not in our timeline [0]:

Although Bush stated at the time "Our mission continues" and "We have difficult work to do in Iraq," he also stated that it was the end to major combat operations in Iraq. Bush never uttered the phrase "Mission Accomplished";[2] a banner stating "Mission Accomplished" was used as a backdrop to the speech.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_Accomplished_speech


Later in the article ... "the White House later conceded that they hung the banner but still insists it had been done at the request of the crew members"

He stood in front of a banner put up by the White House saying "Mission Accomplished" and claimed victory. He did not clarify that the huge banner behind him was about the crew's mission and not Iraq. It is legitimate to say that Bush proclaimed it, and pedantic to argue he did not speak the words.


George Bush in lying shocker. I mean, this probably isn't in the list of the top fifty things he mislead people on.


Forgive my ignorance on the subject but how can Boeing be ahead if they don't have any rockets?


SpaceX has no human-rated launch vehicle either as of now. But this article is about the spacecraft, SpaceX's Dragon 2 and Boeing's Starliner, not the launch vehicles. The Starliner is to be compatible with multiple launchers, including human-rated variants of Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9.


This article is about a NASA-funded project that is supposed to end with Boeing (and SpaceX) having both a man-rated rocket and a man-rated capsule, so that american access to space is assured.


Is the Boeing team that worked on the schedule for the 787 Dreamliner involved in this schedule?


so many billions wasted just because they don't want to play along with russia :')


This headline is another example of biased news pushing a narrative.


In which direction?



Not disagreeing with you, just genuinely curious: how is this headline biased?

Do you mean that the margins are thinner than one might expect by reading it?


The margins are meaningless at this point.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17510611


i would imagine so




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