May was a mighty month for Boeing (BA 0.43%) as the company raced back into space with a (mostly) successful uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Granted, SpaceX still holds a commanding lead over Boeing regarding human spaceflight, having put 25 humans in orbit since conducting its own uncrewed test flight back in 2019, versus zero humans for Boeing.
But Boeing's aiming to whittle away at SpaceX's lead -- maybe as soon as this year -- and set itself up to begin generating revenue from manned spaceflight missions in future years.
Once more, with feeling
Boeing's May "OFT-2" test flight marked the culmination of more than two years of work getting Starliner to fly straight. Although the uncrewed mission didn't go off completely without a hitch, it was close enough that last month NASA felt confident in naming two astronauts -- mission commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore and pilot Suni Williams -- to fly aboard Starliner in Boeing's upcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission.
NASA hasn't named a specific date for CFT, as it is still assessing data generated by OFT-2. But the space agency is reported to have a Dec. 8 launch date marked on its internal calendar. According to Ars Technica, there's at least a "reasonable possibility that Starliner will make a second flight this year." And NASA has promised to help nail that down in a "launch schedule assessment" by the end of July.
What it means for Boeing and its investors
First and foremost, it would be a big PR win for Boeing. It allows the company to argue that, just like SpaceX, Boeing is also a space company possessing a human-rated spacecraft capable of flying missions to the International Space Station, to future private space stations that might be put in orbit, or even theoretically to the moon. At 390 cubic feet, Starliner's crew space is nearly twice as big as the Apollo capsule that regularly trekked to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Although SpaceX would clearly remain in the lead regarding missions completed to-date, in a sense, Boeing would have successfully "caught up" to SpaceX in this particular space race.
A successful CFT mission will also put Boeing on course to collect the remaining balance of the $4.2 billion that it was awarded back in 2014 to develop Starliner, test fly it, and then fly six operational crewed missions to ISS.
What CFT will probably not do for Boeing, however, is help the company win any more crewed spaceflight missions from NASA. When NASA awarded SpaceX first three additional crewed missions last year, then awarded SpaceX another five flights in June, it essentially maxed out its crewed transportation needs to ISS through the end of the operational lifespan of the space station, which is expected to expire in 2030.
Although it is possible that NASA will find reason to send extra astronauts to ISS at some point over the next eight years -- or that it might extend ISS's lifespan past 2030, necessitating additional flights -- at this point Boeing cannot count on winning any more flights to the space station. That means the company has to get lucky if it wants to find more work (and more revenue) for Starliner. Either Boeing must cross its fingers and hope NASA finds a need for more flights to ISS, or else Boeing has to find new customers in need of a human-rated spacecraft.
Wanted: space customers
Where might those customers be found? Three possibilities present themselves. First, Boeing might approach Axiom Space about servicing that company's planned future space station. Axiom already has close ties to SpaceX, which could make this a tough sell. On the other hand, Boeing is already a partner on Jeff Bezos's Orbital Reef space station project, and if that ever gets off the ground, Orbital Reef would be a logical destination for future Starliner flights.
Alternatively, Boeing could do what SpaceX has done and become its own customer. Once Starliner is proven safe for human spaceflight, there's no reason why Boeing couldn't take a page from the playbooks of Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX and offer to fly space tourists to orbit aboard Starliner on paid spaceflights. After all, when SpaceX flew its private "Inspiration4" space tourism mission, it was rumored to collect as much as $200 million for the four space tourists' flight.
Granted, it's an open question how big the market for $50 million space tourism tickets might be, but with only two companies capable of providing this service right now -- and Boeing about to become one of them -- that might be the readiest avenue for expansion of Boeing's new manned spaceflight program.