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The week in space: Two lessons for NASA and their private space partners


This week in space was busy. It was also confusing because two brand-new spacecraft launched, and they have pretty similar names. One is called Starliner. It carried two astronauts to the International Space Station. The other is called Starship, and it didn't have anyone on board, but one day, it might carry people to the moon and to Mars. Joining me to try and keep these spaceships straight is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.


DETROW: A lot of skyrockets in flight this week.

BRUMFIEL: Oh, boy. Yes, indeed. You went there

DETROW: Well, on this afternoon, which would you like to start with, starliner or Starship?

BRUMFIEL: Well, let's start with Starliner, since that launched first. That has turned into a little bit of a summer travel nightmare for the two astronauts on board, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams. First, this thing is way behind schedule. It was built by Boeing, whose airplanes have had their own problems lately. This isn't exactly related. But there have been all sorts of technical faults and glitches. They finally got on board in May, but there were more glitches, so they had to push it off by another month. And now when they took off on Wednesday, it turned out they didn't get to have their luggage with them.

DETROW: That feels like a problem with space travel.

BRUMFIEL: Well, it's better than the alternative. They offloaded the suitcases of the astronauts to make room for an emergency urine pump for the space station's pee recycling system.

DETROW: Also important.

BRUMFIEL: Yes, also important. Finally, they get to the station. They're all lined up to dock, and...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It looks like you're doing great flying there. We lost the first docking window.

BRUMFIEL: They missed their docking window because of more problems. Five of the 28 thrusters didn't work as expected. Starliner was still able to dock, but it was an hour late, sort of a final travel injustice there.

DETROW: OK, So that's Starliner. Now, Starship, tell me about that.

BRUMFIEL: OK. So Starship is built by Elon Musk's company, SpaceX. And this could not be more different than the Starliner. It's this huge stainless steel machine. It's the biggest rocket ever built. It's so big that when it took off, it kind of broke the microphones.


BRUMFIEL: And this flight was wild. Nobody was aboard again, but Starship took off. It flew halfway around the world, and then it started re-entering the atmosphere, and as it did, it glowed white hot. And then Starship started to melt.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, it does appear that we have a little bit of burn-through there. We can see pieces of the vehicle flying off. This is wild to see this. But the ship is still coming down, which is incredible to see.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How far can it go? That is the question.

BRUMFIEL: Now, this would normally obviously be a super bad thing, but this is how SpaceX loves to work. They test, you know, they break things. They test again. It's really effective. Starship got super beat up, but it actually did appear to survive reentry.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. Good news there.

BRUMFIEL: You can hear that even though this thing barely made it through its flight, everyone at SpaceX HQ was super happy.

DETROW: So we have a melting spacecraft. We have a spacecraft that's delayed and has thruster issues. Both of them, in different ways, play key roles for the future of NASA. What happens next in these stories?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Starliner, it's going to be on space station, and then it's going to return to Earth with its astronauts later this month. Hopefully that landing goes smoothly, and obviously, there'll be a lot of introspection and looking into what went wrong. Starship, they're also going to look into what went wrong, but they're going to try and fix it really quickly and launch again just as fast as they can, so they can learn again. Might be even within a month or two that they try flying that thing again.

DETROW: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.