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Elon Musk calls out Boeing's historic first crewed spaceflight, saying SpaceX beat them to the punch years ago

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Elon Musk calls out Boeing's historic first crewed spaceflight, saying SpaceX beat them to the punch years ago
  • Elon Musk criticized Boeing on X ahead of its first astronaut flight to space.
  • SpaceX beat Boeing to the punch, flying NASA astronauts to the space station four years ago for cheaper.

Elon Musk soured the day of Boeing's first astronaut flight to space by lobbing criticism at the company on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Boeing built the Starliner spaceship in collaboration with NASA, and it's set to launch into space on Monday evening, carrying astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the International Space Station.

But SpaceX beat them to the punch in 2020 when it became the first private company to fly astronauts in space and ended a nine-year hiatus in US human spaceflight.

Musk was sure to point this out in an X post on Monday, stating "SpaceX finished 4 years sooner." Boeing did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship that accomplished the feat came from the same NASA initiative that's flying Starliner on Monday. The effort, called the Commercial Crew Program, gave Boeing $4.2 billion to design, build, and test its spaceship.

Not only did SpaceX do it faster — its spaceship was also cheaper, costing NASA just $2.6 billion. Since its first crewed flight in 2020, the company has flown seven astronaut crews to and from the ISS for NASA, with its eighth currently living on the station. It has also flown four private missions.

With each flight, SpaceX has earned money, while Boeing has been sinking more and more funds into Starliner.

Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, pointed out the disparity on X on Monday morning. He attributed it to "too many non-technical managers at Boeing."

Musk was reposting an Ars Technica article by the publication's senior space editor Eric Berger, which laid out in detail how "Boeing decisively lost the commercial crew space race, and it proved to be a very costly affair."

There were clear technical reasons for the delays. During Starliner's first attempt to fly to the ISS without a crew, software errors forced it to return to Earth early. Then a series of issues, including dysfunctional valves in the propulsion system, caused further delays.

But commentators like Musk and Berger say there's an underlying cause.

The Commercial Crew Program represents a major shift in how NASA sees its contractors. Going forward, from space stations to the moon to Mars, NASA wants to foster a new competitive economy in space. Rather than the entity running everything, the agency wants to be one of many customers on companies' space stations, spaceships, and lunar bases.

That's part of why Crew Dragon and Starliner were on fixed-price contracts. NASA set the price, and then SpaceX and Boeing had to build and fly the spaceships to NASA's specifications.

After all, the companies would have other customers on their spaceships. They weren't building them just for the government. So it's on them if costs start to balloon.

That's an adjustment for Boeing as a legacy contractor for the Department of Defense and NASA, aerospace expert George Nield previously told Business Insider.

Boeing was used to the government paying all of its expenses to deliver the best possible product. Under that model, Berger explained, "cost overruns and delays were not the company's problem — they were NASA's."

Suddenly, with a fixed price, "it's up to the company to figure out what risks to take in terms of new technologies and new approaches," said Nield, who is a former associate administrator of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Adjusting to the fixed-price model was a challenge for Boeing, which has long had the luxury of moving slowly. Scrappy SpaceX, however, was "in its natural environment," as Berger put it.

A spokesperson told Berger that "challenges arise when the fixed price acquisition approach is applied to serious technology development requirements, or when the requirements are not firmly and specifically defined resulting in trades that continue back and forth before a final design baseline is established."

According to Berger, the spokesperson added: "A fixed price contract offers little flexibility for solving hard problems that are common in new product and capability development."

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