The Starliner: Boeing Is Raising Its Gaze To Space

Ever since the 1916 maiden flight of Boeing’s first aircraft, a seaplane built from wood and wire and linen, the company has been consistently revolutionizing air travel and striving for a more connected world. It was a leader in the production of all-metal aircraft throughout the 1930s and ’40s, and the use of its small turbine engines in helicopters (and even boats) in the ’50s and ’60s were considered to be historic firsts.

Boeing has also been no stranger to space. In 1969, a few short months after Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin left humankind’s first footprints there in the lunar Sea of Tranquility, Boeing began work on the Lunar Roving Vehicle. In fact, every American spacecraft that has ever carried human beings into space has been designed and built by Boeing or one of its heritage companies.

Fast forward to 2019, and Boeing is poised to take passengers far higher than the standard 38,000 feet of a commercial aircraft. That’s because the company is hard at work on the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft, designed to carry passengers all the way to low-Earth orbit.

Working in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing is creating an “innovative, weldless structure” that will be reusable as many as 10 times, with a required 6-month turnaround time between each use. The lack of welding, the company explains, eliminates the structural risks of traditional welds, as well as reduces mass and production time.

The purpose of the Starliner will be to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. However, NASA announced in a recent press release that, contrary to initial plans, its first crewed test flight will be more than a quick transportation trip. Rather, the trip will be extended by a length yet to be determined, though long enough to be considered a mission in itself. The Starliner will be sent instead on a long-duration flight and docked to the ISS while NASA conducts microgravity research, maintenance, and other activities, all of which will help the organization ensure continued access to the extraterrestrial laboratory and maximizing its utilization.

There’s still much to learn about the Starliner, but Boeing and NASA regularly share details of its progress. What we do know is that the vessel will be able to accommodate seven passengers or a mix of fewer passengers and cargo. For those service missions to the ISS, it will carry up to four NASA-sponsored crew members and “time-critical scientific research.”

So far NASA has ordered an un-crewed and crewed flight test as well as six crew rotation missions to the International Space Station, which will mark Boeing first commercial human spaceflight missions. Its first corporate test pilot astronaut, Chris Ferguson, will train alongside two NASA astronauts for the Starliner’s first mission to the ISS. Ferguson has been an integral part of the vessel’s development, leading teams in designing and implementing mission systems and crew interfaces, as well as technologies for launch and ground systems. He’s also got the kind of career resume one would expect — or hope for! — to hold such a ground-breaking position; as well as being a retired U.S. Navy captain and NASA spacecraft communicator for a variety of missions, he has logged more than 40 days in space as a NASA astronaut himself.

Other information that Boeing and NASA have shared about the Starliner is that it will feature wireless internet and tablet technology in its crew interfaces, which will aid in communication and docking as well as entertainment — a super important feature to combat the monotony and close quarters of spaceship life!

The crew onboard will receive extensive training via devices developed by Boeing, which will involve plenty of problem solving and teach astronauts to handle any situation that could foreseeably arise. Even though the spacecraft was designed to be autonomous, there’s no taking chances in the harsh environment of space. And if any trouble should arise during launch or ascent, there’s always a pusher abort system to provide crew with a safe and fast escape.

The vessel’s access tower, positioned above the launch pad surface of Space Launch Complex 41, marks the first new access tower to be erected on Florida’s Space Coast since the days of the Apollo. Complex 41 has previously only been used for non-crew spacecraft, though it’s certainly been a site of historic significance; the Viking robots bound for Mars, the New Horizons probe pointed for Pluto, the Curiosity rover, and the Voyager shuttles (at least one of which has now entered deep space) have all launched from this pad.

More than a hundred years after Boeing took to the skies, we’re eager to see them go a little higher.


Images via Boeing.