The Boeing Co. is one of two companies funded by NASA to develop spacecraft for the International Space Station. Its CST-100 Starliner is expected to fly with an astronaut on board no earlier than 2017.
The firm is best known for its large passenger jets. In space, it has performed work on the space shuttle and the ISS, among other projects.
The CST-100 is similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but should have electronics that are half a century more advanced. Its gumdrop shape also looks somewhat like the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle being constructed right now by Lockheed Martin and its partners. Orion is designed to carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.
Partners seeking business markets
The spacecraft is designed to carry up to seven astronauts, with additional cargo also possible if fewer astronauts fly in a particular mission. Measuring 14.8 feet (4.5 meters) across at its widest point, the gumdrop-shaped spacecraft will first fly into space aboard Atlas 5 rockets.
Boeing isn’t going at this venture alone. Another destination for its spacecraft could be an inflatable space station being proposed by Bigelow.
A few years ago, Boeing said it plans to grant Space Adventures, a space tourism company based in Virginia, the chance to sell any unused seats on the CST-100 for space tourism rides into low Earth orbit. However, the company has said it is not entirely sure what sort of business markets will arise for its spacecraft, if any.
“The market is obviously going to be there,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing Commercial Programs, in a 2012 Space.com interview. “I hope it’s in the near-term … but I’d say right now, it is soft because no one has been able to penetrate and really do it on a recurring basis. We’ll see.” The federal space agency has awarded not only Boeing and their Starliner spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station, but also SpaceX and a crew variant of their workhorse Dragon vehicle. SpaceX is expected to launch first with Boeing close behind.
Boeing was given almost $4.2 billion as part of NASA’s awarded contract to develop the CST-100 Starliner and it is expected to depart for its maiden voyage in early 2019, following two unmanned flight tests. The vehicle could carry up to 7 astronauts and even operate autonomously with the option to take over manual controls in case of an emergency.With two competing commercial space companies flying crewed missions for NASA, it’s very possible that we’ll one day see both the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon docked at the International Space Station simultaneously. This is the spirit of the Commercial Crew Program, to hand over operations in low-Earth orbit to the private, competitive industry—where innovation could grow. This would allow NASA so focus on exploring Jupiter’s moon, Europa and finally launching their manned mission to Mars.