Boeing’s Spaceship Problems Show Just How Amazing Musk’s SpaceX Is – Barron’s

A United Launch Alliance with a Starliner spacecraft on board.

Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

Boeing continues to work on valve problems that delayed the launch of its Starliner space capsule. No new date for the launch, originally scheduled for July 30, has been set, and The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday evening the delays could last months.

Everyone knows that getting to space is hard, and the delays aren’t really affecting Boeing ‘s (ticker BA) stock. Boeing, of course, has a much bigger business selling commercial airliners. What’s more, the delays aren’t all caused by Boeing. There has to be space to launch and everything has to be in the right orbit. Instead, the Starliner story shows just how impressive SpaceX is.

The Starliner is a reusable crew capsule designed to take astronauts to the International Space Station, or ISS, and back. The program is part of NASA plans to bring crewed launch capabilities back to the U.S. After the Space Shuttle was retired about a decade ago, America relied on foreign countries to take astronauts into space.

But America can now launch astronauts into space again, thanks to SpaceX. Elon Musk’s space company has ferried astronauts to the ISS a few times—first in May 2020 on a certification flight and most recently in April.

The SpaceX success seems even more impressive considering that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule sits atop SpaceX rockets with engines built by SpaceX. The Boeing Starliner capsule sits atop a United Launch Alliance, or ULA, rocket. Some of the engines are made in Russia, while others come from suppliers such as Aerojet Rocketdyne (AJRD).

ULA—a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin (LMT)—and Aerojet are established space players. SpaceX was founded in 2002. It’s a teenager.

Now SpaceX has contracts with NASA and the Defense Department. Its products will eventually end up on the moon and Mars. The next test flight space investors get to see might just be an orbital flight for SpaceX’s huge Starship.

SpaceX also has a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit capable of delivering Wi-Fi service. The company seems so far ahead. How they do it is an open question.

Musk did lay out a five-step process he follows for manufacturing in a recent tour of Starbase in Texas. These are the elements: (1) Make requirement less dumb, (2) delete parts or processes, (3) simplify, (4) accelerate cycle times, or “go faster,” and (5) automate.

Maybe that process is why Musk believes SpaceX can also deliver space suits for the Moon mission faster than NASA can. The space suits are far behind schedule.

Based on history, it’s a good bet SpaceX can develop space suits quickly.

Sometimes success brings complaints. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is protesting SpaceX’s contract win for the Human Landing System for the moon, but Blue Origin hasn’t achieved orbital flight yet. The protest prompted a jab by Musk.

Blue Origin also has big space ambitions, but things are going more slowly than at SpaceX. Blue Origin was selected by ULA back in 2014 to become an engine supplier, supplanting the Russian-made engines used on ULA’s Atlas V rockets. Those Blue Origin engines, however, aren’t ready yet.

ULA plans to fly them on a new rocket called Vulcan Centaur beginning in 2022, it says. The Vulcan Centaur will eventually replace the Atlas V rocket, along with another ULA launch vehicle named Delta VI.

All the success is yielding financial benefits for Musk’s company. Investors show a lot of faith in SpaceX, valuing it at about $74 billion in private markets. Boeing, for comparison, has an enterprise value—market capitalization plus net debt—of about $180 billion. Of course, Boeing is more than 100 years old and has a huge commercial airplane business too.

Boeing stock is up about 3.6% since the initial Starliner launch was halted on July 30. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 have both gained a little less than 2%, over the same span.

Space is still only a portion of Boeing’s overall defense business. Investors care much more about the commercial airplane business. The stock was down 1.5% in late trading Friday.

Write to Al Root at allen.root@dowjones.com

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