atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#7101: They're in the wrong business

NASA analyzed Boeing's lunar cargo delivery proposal and was, uh, less than flattering in its assessment.
Due to its high price and ill-suited proposal for the lunar cargo contract, NASA didn't even consider the proposal among the final bidders. In his assessment late last year, NASA's acting chief of human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, wrote, "Since Boeing's proposal was the highest priced and the lowest rated under the Mission Suitability factor, while additionally providing a conditional fixed price, I have decided to eliminate Boeing from further award consideration."
That's the penultimate paragraph of the article. That quote, worded that way, is enough to take the wind out of you. "Highest priced" and "lowest-rated"--this for what is otherwise the premiere aerospace corporation in the world--has got to hurt.

Kind of like a 1978 Cadillac with a diesel engine, eh?

The problem reduces down to a relatively simple prospect, and it's a solution that SF authors and fans have been advocating for several decades: instead of selling rocket ships, companies need to be encouraged to sell flights to a destination.

Okay, when you call up United Airlines and buy a ticket, you're not buying an airplane. You're not even buying a seat. What you are doing is paying them to get you somewhere. Can you imagine what it would cost per flight--how bloody expensive it would be--if people had to buy expendable hardware to hop a plane for New York or Cancun or Lower Crotobaltislavonia?

Let's imagine that we do air flights the way NASA did rocket flights before SpaceX. Even if you had five hundred people go in together on the cost of a 737, they'd still have to pay something like $180,000 apiece for the airplane alone, plus the cost of crew and fuel. Boeing would have to get the order for the airplane two years in advance to have it built in time, and there would probably be cost overruns and delays, and when ground tests inevitably discovered problems with the plane they'd have to fix them at greater cost and more time waiting. Eventually, everyone on the flight would end up paying $300,000 apiece for their ONE FLIGHT to wherever they're going, at which point the airplane would no longer be usable and another one would have to be built. In that model, air travel never would have seen the light of day, much less become a common mode of transport.

Boeing's problem is, that's what they're selling. They're selling disposable rocket ships--worse, they're bespoke disposable rocket ships. Built to order at enormous cost with staggeringly long lead times, and somehow they have never managed to produce something for the government on-time (let alone early!) and under budget. NEVER.

All of this is fine as long as some smartass upstart doesn't come along and start building reusable rockets, on which he offers flights for a fraction of what one of our rockets costs. As long as some person with really deep pockets and a rare level of business acumen doesn't realize that he can sell about ten flights on a rocket for the price we charge for one rocket, we're golden. I mean, who would think that anyone would try to make a reusable rocket, am I right? Besides, we own all these Senators and congressmen. How's some upstart going to navigate the labyrinth of regulation and red tape (which we paid for!) to keep everyone out of this business?

I'd be interested to know what happened to the shipbuilding industry starting in oh, say, 1955. At what point did shipyards stop building passenger ships? I don't mean those floating casinos that people vacation on; I mean actual "I need to go to Europe, book me some passage on a ship" passenger liners? WW2 probably had some major influence on that shift but there has to have been a point at which it was down to one or two companies; and I wonder if any of them is building the floating casinos, or what? But what they are not doing is providing a necessary service but a luxury service.

I don't know if Boeing can overcome its inertia. Like all large corporations, "agility" is a buzzword they aspire to rather than an attribute they can take advantage of. The fact that the 737MAX program was so spectacularly bungled does not give me much confidence; and looking at what--and how--they're doing with the Starliner program reinforces that.

But the company's confident boast that the first manned ship to land on Mars will be a Boeing product is looking ever more hollow these days.
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