Starliner: The US space industry’s next big thing?

Starliner: The US space industry’s next big thing?

Astronauts are preparing for launch in Boeing’s new Starliner. What does the spacecraft mean for the future of the US space program?

When Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled down the runway at the Kennedy Space Center in 2011, ending 30 years of the manned shuttle program, it left Nasa with a problem. Without enough government funding to build a replacement while the shuttle is still flying, the US has no way to launch its astronauts into orbit.

The only way to fly a crew to its own orbiting laboratory on the International Space Station (ISS) is to pay around $80m (£64m) for a seat in a cramped Russian Soyuz capsule.

It seems incredible to many that the country that has landed men on the Moon, built and maintained – in orbit, no less – the Hubble Space Telescope and assembled a giant space station is now relying on the 45-year-old spacecraft it built. Cold War Rivalry.

As relations deteriorated following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, the embarrassment was compounded by a tweet from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.

Responding to the introduction of restrictions on the export of US technology, he wrote: “After analyzing the restrictions on our space industry, I propose that the US sends its astronauts to the ISS on a trampoline.” If the message was too subtle, he also posted a picture of a trampoline with a Nasa insignia.

But Nasa has a long-term plan – the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) – and, after 13 years, the first launch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft means it has finally been fully realised. The viability of the CCP model, not to mention Boeing’s already fragile reputation, depends on successful test flights.

“It’s been a long road to get here,” said Makena Young, a fellow with the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. “I think it’s a reminder that even though we have a good record, the space is still very difficult and it’s difficult to succeed.”

The idea behind CCP is that instead of Nasa designing, building and owning its spacecraft, it buys seats from commercial operators. You can liken it to buying a seat on an airplane, albeit one that costs more than $55 million (£44 million) for a round trip and involves a billion-dollar taxpayer investment to build the vehicle in the first place.

Boeing’s Starliner website reads like a car brochure
After funding the initial development of five potential commercial spacecraft, Nasa narrowed the field to two in 2014 (you can see the timeline and all the costs here): aerospace behemoth Boeing Starliner, and upstart SpaceX with its Crew Dragon.

By the end of 2019, the race to launch between the two space rivals looked neck and neck. Then, following the near-disastrous test flight of the first uncrewed Starliner in December of that year, and a series of subsequent hardware failures on Boeing’s craft during further testing, SpaceX took the lead. In May 2020, the first Crew Dragon lifted Nasa astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit.

Meanwhile, Starliner pilot astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams have patiently waited another four years for their chance to fly a week-long mission to the ISS in what Boeing promises will be a “generational space capsule”.

Boeing’s Starliner website reads like a car brochure, reflecting its commercial proposition. The reusable spacecraft promises customers precision software, advanced “cruise control” and a spacious interior. In fact, the capsule (and it’s more of a capsule than anything resembling a sea vessel) can carry up to seven crew members, although normally under contract with Nasa it would carry four people to the ISS.

Boeing has also designed a new blue space suit, a clear contrast to the Dragon’s monochrome design. Offered in a variety of sizes, these suits promise astronauts greater comfort and flexibility.

“They’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of NASA money as well as their own money to get this across the finish line,” Young said. “Being able to send this crew successfully and safely to the ISS would be a huge achievement and show that all the time, money and effort was worth it.”

Nasa is desperate to create a market for low Earth orbit – Jason Davis
For Boeing and SpaceX’s main customer, Nasa, the benefit of having two commercial suppliers flying two different spacecraft almost guarantees sovereign access to space. Even if one spacecraft is grounded for some reason, another may be available.

“Nasa always wanted two suppliers, but it wasn’t known at the time [CCP was conceived] whether or not this company could actually deliver,” said Jason Davis, senior editor for the Planetary Society. “It’s a big deal for Nasa because it validates the strategy they’ve been working on for almost two decades.”

The competition should also lower prices for both the agency but also other potential customers, opening up human spaceflight to more and more commercial operators.

“Nasa really wants to create a market for low Earth orbit,” Davis said. “So that the crew and cargo transport will be free of them.”

Now, for the first time in history, if a company wants to buy a seat on a spaceship – or even rent an entire capsule – they have a choice of providers. Texas-based Axiom Space has chartered three private flights in its Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS and is planning several more including a possible UK mission flown by an all-British crew. In the future, it is hoped that Dragon and Starliner will also be able to carry astronauts to and from privately operated space stations.

“The ISS will be decommissioned around the end of the decade, and it will be replaced by a number of [private] space stations,” said Libby Jackson, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency. “These stations will still have major customers in the form of Nasa or the European Space Agency (ESA), but there are opportunities to develop new materials, new drugs that you can only release in space – I’m very excited to see what opportunities that market thinking free will bring.”

China is increasingly seen as the world’s second largest space power
But while access to space is increasingly about competition between companies, when it comes to human spaceflight, geopolitics and national pride still matter. Despite the war in Ukraine, the US is still working with Russia on the ISS and US astronauts are still flying in Soyuz capsules and Russians in Crew Dragon. When the deal ends, and unless there are some major political changes in Moscow, the US and Russia will once again be rivals.

Soyuz, however, will be more than 60 years old by then, so it’s not Russia that the US will be worried about. With its own space station, new spacecraft and plans for a crewed mission to the Moon, China is increasingly seen as the world’s second space superpower.

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