Now, Boeing is going for a high-stakes redo of that mission. On August 3, Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, will send Starliner to the ISS again. The company cannot afford another failure.
“There is a lot of credibility at stake here,” says Greg Autry, a space policy expert at Arizona State University. “Nothing is more visible than space systems that fly humans.”
The afternoon of July 30 was a stark reminder of that visibility. After Russia’s new 23-ton multipurpose Nauka module docked with the ISS, it began firing its thrusters unexpectedly and without command, shifting the ISS out of its proper and normal position in orbit. NASA and Russia fixed the problem and had things stabilized in under an hour, but we still don’t know what happened, and it’s unnerving to think what could have happened if conditions had been worse. The whole incident is still under investigation and has forced NASA to postpone the Starliner launch from July 31 to August 3.
It’s precisely this kind of near-disaster Boeing wants to avoid, for OFT-2 and any future mission with people onboard.
How Starliner got here
The shutdown of the space shuttle program in 2011 gave NASA a chance to rethink its approach. Instead of building a new spacecraft designed for travel to low Earth orbit, the agency elected to open up opportunities to the private sector as part of a new Commercial Crew Program. It awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to build their own crewed vehicles: Starliner and Crew Dragon, respectively. NASA would buy flights on these vehicles and focus its own efforts on building new technologies for missions to the moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
Both companies hit development delays, and for nine years NASA’s only way of getting to space was by handing over millions of dollars to Russia for seats on Soyuz missions. SpaceX finally sent astronauts to space in May 2020 (followed by two more crewed missions since), but Boeing is still lagging behind. Its December 2019 flight was supposed to prove that all its systems worked, and that it was capable of docking with the ISS and returning to Earth safely. But a glitch with its internal clock caused it to execute a critical burn prematurely, making it impossible to dock with the ISS.
A subsequent investigation revealed that a second glitch would have caused Starliner to fire its thrusters at the wrong time when making its descent back to Earth, which could have destroyed the spacecraft. That glitch was fixed mere hours before Starliner was set to come back home. Software issues aren’t unexpected in spacecraft development, but they’re things Boeing could have resolved ahead of time with better quality control or better oversight from NASA.
Boeing has had 21 months to fix these problems. NASA never demanded another Starliner flight test; Boeing elected to redo it and foot the $410 million bill on its own.
“I fully expect the test to go perfectly,” says Autry. “These problems involved software systems, and those should be easily resolvable.”
What’s at stake
If things go wrong, the repercussions will depend on what those things are. Should the spacecraft experience another set of software problems, there’ll likely be hell to pay, and it’s very hard to see how Boeing’s relationship with NASA could recover. A catastrophic failure for other reasons would also be bad, but space is volatile, and even tiny problems that are hard to anticipate and control for can lead to explosive outcomes. That may be more forgivable.
If the new test doesn’t succeed, NASA will still work with Boeing, but a re-flight “might be a couple years off,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “NASA would likely go back to SpaceX for more flights, further disadvantaging Boeing.”
Boeing needs OFT-2 to go well for reasons beyond just fulfilling its contract with NASA. Neither SpaceX nor Boeing built its new vehicles to carry out ISS missions—they each had larger ambitions. “There is real demand [for access to space] from high-net-worth individuals, demonstrated since the early 2000s, when several flew on the Russian Soyuz,” says Autry. “There is also a very strong business in flying the sovereign astronaut corps of many countries that are not ready to build their own vehicles.”
SpaceX will prove to be very stiff competition. It has private missions—its own and through Axiom Space—already slated for the next few years. More are sure to come, especially since Axiom, Sierra Nevada, and other companies plan to build private space stations for paying visitors.
Boeing’s biggest problem is cost. NASA is paying the company $90 million per seat to fly astronauts to the ISS, versus $55 million per seat to SpaceX. “NASA can afford them because after the shuttle problems the agency did not want to become dependent upon a single flight system—if that breaks, everything stops,” says Handberg. But private citizens and other countries are likely to plump for the cheaper—and more experienced—option.
Boeing could definitely use some good PR these days. It is building the main booster for the $20-billion-and-counting Space Launch System, set to be the most powerful rocket in the world. But high costs and massive delays have turned it into a lightning rod for criticism. Meanwhile, alternatives like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Super Heavy, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and ULA’s Vulcan Centaur have emerged or are set to debut in the next few years. In 2019, NASA’s inspector general looked at potential fraud in Boeing contracts worth up $661 million. And the company is one of the main characters at the center of a criminal probe involving a previous bid for a lunar lander contract.
If there was ever a time Boeing wanted to remind people what it’s capable of and what it can do for the US space program, it’s next week.
“Another failure would put Boeing so far behind SpaceX that they might have to consider major changes in their approach,” says Handberg. “For Boeing, this is the show.”
The quest to show that biological sex matters in the immune system
She ultimately found a postdoctoral position in the lab of one of her thesis committee members. And in the years since, as she has established a lab of her own at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, she has painstakingly made the case that sex—defined by biological attributes such as our sex chromosomes, sex hormones, and reproductive tissues—really does influence immune responses.
Through research in animal models and humans, Klein and others have shown how and why male and female immune systems respond differently to the flu virus, HIV, and certain cancer therapies, and why most women receive greater protection from vaccines but are also more likely to get severe asthma and autoimmune disorders (something that had been known but not attributed specifically to immune differences). “Work from her laboratory has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of vaccine responses and immune function on males and females,” says immunologist Dawn Newcomb of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. (When referring to people in this article, “male” is used as a shorthand for people with XY chromosomes, a penis, and testicles, and who go through a testosterone-dominated puberty, and “female” is used as a shorthand for people with XX chromosomes and a vulva, and who go through an estrogen-dominated puberty.)
Through her research, as well as the unglamorous labor of arranging symposia and meetings, Klein has helped spearhead a shift in immunology, a field that long thought sex differences didn’t matter. Historically, most trials enrolled only males, resulting in uncounted—and likely uncountable—consequences for public health and medicine. The practice has, for example, caused women to be denied a potentially lifesaving HIV therapy and left them likely to endure worse side effects from drugs and vaccines when given the same dose as men.
Men and women don’t experience infectious or autoimmune diseases in the same way. Women are nine times more likely to get lupus than men, and they have been hospitalized at higher rates for some flu strains. Meanwhile, men are significantly more likely to get tuberculosis and to die of covid-19 than women.
In the 1990s, scientists often attributed such differences to gender rather than sex—to norms, roles, relationships, behaviors, and other sociocultural factors as opposed to biological differences in the immune system.
For example, even though three times as many women have multiple sclerosis as men, immunologists in the 1990s ignored the idea that this difference could have a biological basis, says Rhonda Voskuhl, a neuroimmunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “People would say, ‘Oh, the women just complain more—they’re kind of hysterical,’” Voskuhl says. “You had to convince people that it wasn’t just all subjective or environmental, that it was basic biology. So it was an uphill battle.”
Despite a historical practice of “bikini medicine”—the notion that there are no major differences between the sexes outside the parts that fit under a bikini—we now know that whether you’re looking at your metabolism, heart, or immune system, both biological sex differences and sociocultural gender differences exist. And they both play a role in susceptibility to diseases. For instance, men’s greater propensity to tuberculosis—they are almost twice as likely to get it as women—may be attributed partly to differences in their immune responses and partly to the fact that men are more likely to smoke and to work in mining or construction jobs that expose them to toxic substances, which can impair the lungs’ immune defenses.
How to tease apart the effects of sex and gender? That’s where animal models come in. “Gender is a social construct that we associate with humans, so animals do not have a gender,” says Chyren Hunter, associate director for basic and translational research at the US National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health. Seeing the same effect in both animal models and humans is a good starting point for finding out whether an immune response is modulated by sex.
Why can’t tech fix its gender problem?
Not competing in this Olympics, but still contributing to the industry’s success, were the thousands of women who worked in the Valley’s microchip fabrication plants and other manufacturing facilities from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Some were working-class Asian- and Mexican-Americans whose mothers and grandmothers had worked in the orchards and fruit canneries of the prewar Valley. Others were recent migrants from the East and Midwest, white and often college educated, needing income and interested in technical work.
With few other technical jobs available to them in the Valley, women would work for less. The preponderance of women on the lines helped keep the region’s factory wages among the lowest in the country. Women continue to dominate high-tech assembly lines, though now most of the factories are located thousands of miles away. In 1970, one early American-owned Mexican production line employed 600 workers, nearly 90% of whom were female. Half a century later the pattern continued: in 2019, women made up 90% of the workforce in one enormous iPhone assembly plant in India. Female production workers make up 80% of the entire tech workforce of Vietnam.
Venture: “The Boys Club”
Chipmaking’s fiercely competitive and unusually demanding managerial culture proved to be highly influential, filtering down through the millionaires of the first semiconductor generation as they deployed their wealth and managerial experience in other companies. But venture capital was where semiconductor culture cast its longest shadow.
The Valley’s original venture capitalists were a tight-knit bunch, mostly young men managing older, much richer men’s money. At first there were so few of them that they’d book a table at a San Francisco restaurant, summoning founders to pitch everyone at once. So many opportunities were flowing it didn’t much matter if a deal went to someone else. Charter members like Silicon Valley venture capitalist Reid Dennis called it “The Group.” Other observers, like journalist John W. Wilson, called it “The Boys Club.”
The venture business was expanding by the early 1970s, even though down markets made it a terrible time to raise money. But the firms founded and led by semiconductor veterans during this period became industry-defining ones. Gene Kleiner left Fairchild Semiconductor to cofound Kleiner Perkins, whose long list of hits included Genentech, Sun Microsystems, AOL, Google, and Amazon. Master intimidator Don Valentine founded Sequoia Capital, making early-stage investments in Atari and Apple, and later in Cisco, Google, Instagram, Airbnb, and many others.
Generations: “Pattern recognition”
Silicon Valley venture capitalists left their mark not only by choosing whom to invest in, but by advising and shaping the business sensibility of those they funded. They were more than bankers. They were mentors, professors, and father figures to young, inexperienced men who often knew a lot about technology and nothing about how to start and grow a business.
“This model of one generation succeeding and then turning around to offer the next generation of entrepreneurs financial support and managerial expertise,” Silicon Valley historian Leslie Berlin writes, “is one of the most important and under-recognized secrets to Silicon Valley’s ongoing success.” Tech leaders agree with Berlin’s assessment. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs—who learned most of what he knew about business from the men of the semiconductor industry—likened it to passing a baton in a relay race.
Predicting the climate bill’s effects is harder than you might think
Human decision-making can also cause models and reality to misalign. “People don’t necessarily always do what is, on paper, the most economic,” says Robbie Orvis, who leads the energy policy solutions program at Energy Innovation.
This is a common issue for consumer tax credits, like those for electric vehicles or home energy efficiency upgrades. Often people don’t have the information or funds needed to take advantage of tax credits.
Likewise, there are no assurances that credits in the power sectors will have the impact that modelers expect. Finding sites for new power projects and getting permits for them can be challenging, potentially derailing progress. Some of this friction is factored into the models, Orvis says. But there’s still potential for more challenges than modelers expect.
Putting too much stock in results from models can be problematic, says James Bushnell, an economist at the University of California, Davis. For one thing, models could overestimate how much behavior change is because of tax credits. Some of the projects that are claiming tax credits would probably have been built anyway, Bushnell says, especially solar and wind installations, which are already becoming more widespread and cheaper to build.
Still, whether or not the bill meets the expectations of the modelers, it’s a step forward in providing climate-friendly incentives, since it replaces solar- and wind-specific credits with broader clean-energy credits that will be more flexible for developers in choosing which technologies to deploy.
Another positive of the legislation is all its long-term investments, whose potential impacts aren’t fully captured in the economic models. The bill includes money for research and development of new technologies like direct air capture and clean hydrogen, which are still unproven but could have major impacts on emissions in the coming decades if they prove to be efficient and practical.
Whatever the effectiveness of the Inflation Reduction Act, however, it’s clear that more climate action is still needed to meet emissions goals in 2030 and beyond. Indeed, even if the predictions of the modelers are correct, the bill is still not sufficient for the US to meet its stated goals under the Paris agreement of cutting emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030.
The path ahead for US climate action isn’t as certain as some might wish it were. But with the Inflation Reduction Act, the country has taken a big step. Exactly how big is still an open question.