Boeing introduced its new passenger spacecraft last week, the CST-100 Starliner, out to the Florida launch site the vehicle is set to leave the ground this month. It’s the first time that a spaceflight-prepared version of the capsule has left the hangar.
Now the capsule was paired off on top of the rocket that will carry it to space — an Atlas V built by the United Launch Alliance. On December 17th, the capsule and rocket are scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida — without any squad members on board — and then harbor with the International Space Station. If successful, this display mission could smooth the way for NASA astronauts to fly on the Starliner sometime following year.
Boeing has been working on the Starliner spacecraft for NASA as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew program, a program to fly astronauts on US-made vehicles once more. After the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA astronauts have had to travel on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station, a relationship that costs NASA $85 million per seat.
Boeing is one of two suppliers for the Commercial Crew program, together with rival SpaceX, which has been making its own passenger spacecraft called the Crew Dragon. The two have been in an undeclared competition with one another to fly humans first, though Boeing has appeared to lag behind SpaceX in growth. SpaceX already unveiled its Crew Dragon once in March, on an uncrewed flight test to the International Space Station. The flight verified the Crew Dragon’s capability to dock with the ISS and then come back home safely.
Afterward flight, though, the same Crew Dragon that flew to the ISS suffered a key failure when it blasted during engine testing on the ground. The setback caused a considerable delay to SpaceX’s development plan, and now it’s blurred which company will be the first to fly people. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine lately claimed that if testing goes well, SpaceX could fly people as soon as the first quarter of 2020. But, no target dates have been set till now.
Meanwhile, Boeing is now less than a month away from Starliner’s primary flight to space. After the Atlas V places Starliner in orbit, the capsule is assigned with meeting up with the space station and mechanically docking with one of the accessible ports on the ISS. After a brief stay, Starliner will then leave and come back to Earth, where it will try to land at one of five locations in the western US. A combination of airbags and parachutes are designed to land the Starliner softly on solid ground.
“Rosie is a representation of not only the women who are blazing a trail in human spaceflight history, but also of everybody who has shown determination and grit while working untiringly to make certain the Starliner can carry astronauts safely to and from the International Space Station,” said Leanne Caret, president of Boeing’s Defense, Space & Security division.
Although no people will be onboard the capsule in December, Boeing intends to fly a mannequin — just like SpaceX did — sporting one of the blue pressure suits the company made for future astronauts. Although SpaceX’s dummy was named Ripley after the lead in the Alien franchise, Boeing has called its dummy Rosie, after Rosie the Riveter, according to Florida Today. “Rosie is a representation of not only the women who are blazing a trail in human spaceflight history, but also of everybody who has shown determination and grit while working untiringly to make certain the Starliner can carry astronauts safely to and from the International Space Station,” said Leanne Caret, president of Boeing’s Defense, Space & Security division.
Boeing’s big breakthrough comes just a week after a critical report was released by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, stating that rides on Boeing’s Starliner will be incredibly expensive. The report claimed that one seat on Starliner will charge $90 million — more than a seat on the Soyuz and far more than the $55 million a seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will cost. The appraisal also revealed that Boeing had received an extra $287 million to the company’s allegedly fixed-price contract to avoid delays to the Commercial Crew program, $187 million of which the inspector general considered excessive. The report even suggested that Boeing was threatening to desert the Commercial Crew program if it didn’t get more money. Moreover, the report found that SpaceX was not given the chance to receive extra funding to its contract.
Both Boeing and NASA vehemently disagreed with many of the deductions drawn by the OIG report. Boeing says it rebuffs the estimated pricing of its Starliner seats and that the company never pressured to leave the program. The company also said that the cost differences between SpaceX and Boeing can be credited to the fact that SpaceX had a noteworthy lead in development time. Boeing stated that the Crew Dragon is an improved version of SpaceX’s cargo Dragon, which has already been flying to the station for years and took additional NASA investment long ago.
In spite of all this, Boeing is still moving ahead and the Starliner could ultimately see space before the end of the year. Coming to when people will fly on either SpaceX’s or Boeing’s vehicles, that’s still an open query. The latest OIG report noted there are still many obstacles for both companies to conquer and that it is very expected that neither Boeing nor SpaceX will be certified to consistently transport crews to the ISS before summer of 2020.