Boeing is in the final stages of preparing its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for launch next month. The vehicle will one day carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), but first, it has to complete its maiden voyage. Boeing just rolled the CST-100 out to the launch site at Cape Canaveral where it will be mated to a rocket for the planned December flight.
The CST-100 is one of two vehicles funded by NASA under the Commercial Crew Program, the other being the SpaceX Dragon II capsule. SpaceX has the advantage of designing its crewed spacecraft around an established cargo vessel design. The original Dragon has been making supply runs to the ISS for several years, so it was able to test the crewed version (autonomously) earlier this year. If not for a nasty fuel line malfunction that destroyed a spacecraft during testing in April, SpaceX might already be flying people into space.
Boeing’s CST-100 is a new design, but it’s based on the classic Apollo-era command module. It has a capacity of seven crew members, but the first flight won’t have anyone on board. Well, technically, there will be a dummy on board to collect data. SpaceX named its dummy “Ripley” after the character in the Alien movies, but Boeing is going with “Rosie” after Rosie the Riveter.
The CST-100 launch is currently slated for Dec. 17. Unlike SpaceX, Boeing doesn’t make its own rockets. The CST-100 will launch atop a non-reusable United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The spacecraft will make its way to the ISS where it will autonomously dock at one of the available ports. After a short stay, the CST-100 will undock from the station and return to Earth for further analysis.
The capsules used to ferry astronauts will be fully reusable after some refurbishment, which should make the seats less expensive. However, a recent NASA Office of Inspector General (IOG) report says that a single seat on the Starliner might cost NASA as much as $90 million. That’s much more than SpaceX, which has a fully reusable Falcon 9 rocket launch platform and will ask just $55 million per seat. Boeing’s potential ticket price is even higher than the $85 million NASA currently pays for a single Russian Soyuz seat.
If all goes as planned with the upcoming test flight, the CST-100 could begin flying people into space in early 2020. However, the aforementioned OIG report claimed both Boeing and SpaceX would end up launching crewed missions closer to summer 2020.
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