What it took to make Boeing’s Starliner fly

Starliner at the starting gate.
Starliner at the starting gate.
Image: AP/NASA/Joel Kowsky
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NASA had a simple ask: Take a few people, put them in a vehicle, and accelerate more than 20 times past the speed of sound. Oh, and make sure they’re alive when they get where they’re going—an aluminum and titanium habitat orbiting 250 miles above the planet.

Boeing’s answer to this question—the Starliner spacecraft—should take its maiden flight today without any people on board, in a dress rehearsal that will help pave the way for a new form of private transportation in space, ending American reliance on Russian spacecraft to send its astronauts into orbit.

The launch is expected at 6:36 am ET from Kennedy Space Center, televised live by NASA. If poor weather interferes, a new launch opportunity will present itself on Dec. 21.

The Starliner will be lofted into space on top of a two-stage Atlas V rocket. Then, about 90 miles above the planet, it will separate from the second stage of the rocket booster and proceed under its own power to the International Space Station (ISS). Its cargo includes a test dummy named Rosie (after the iconic riveter) and a few bags of gear for the six people now living onboard the station.

Update, 10:15 am ET: After a successful launch, the Starliner failed to rendezvous with the ISS due to a problem with its internal clock.

A 16-year journey

The journey to this flight test began in 2003, with the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia. The death of the seven astronauts onboard convinced the US space agency that it was time to retire the shuttle, which began service in 1981, and come up with a new way to fly people and payloads to low-Earth orbit.

A key problem: Designing the space shuttle cost $35 billion and took more than a decade. The US didn’t have $35 billion, or a decade to wait. Using the space shuttle for a few more years (it would make its last flight in 2011) would help. But US president George W. Bush wanted to return to the moon and push deeper into space.

One way to save money and time would be using a simpler vehicle than the shuttle, which was enormous and designed by NASA for a variety of different missions, and required extensive refurbishing. NASA engineers decided that getting to low-Earth orbit in a simple capsule was a task that could be outsourced to the private sector.

Thus began a series a public-private programs at NASA, inaugurated when SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop Grumman) began building uncrewed cargo vehicles. When those succeeded, the decision was made to add people to the mix. So in 2014, SpaceX and Boeing were tapped to develop astronaut-carrying capsules. SpaceX launched its uncrewed test flight in February.

This undated photo made available by NASA on Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 shows, from left, Sunita Williams, Josh Cassada, Eric Boe, Nicole Mann, Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover standing in front of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On Friday, the space agency announced the astronauts who will ride the first commercial capsules into orbit next year and bring human launches back to the U.S.
The astronauts assigned to ride the two newest spacecraft, seen behind them.
Image: AP/NASA

The difference from the days of the shuttle and Apollo is pretty clear: Instead of a cost-plus contract that would guarantee a profit no matter what it took to solve the engineering problem at hand, Boeing and SpaceX would be asked to balance costs and performance on a fixed-price contract.

SpaceX has received $3.2 billion to develop its Crew Dragon, while Boeing has been paid nearly $5 billion to build Starliner, significantly less than the Shuttle. And though the commercial crew program is years behind schedule, if it goes into operation next year as hoped it will have been a faster development process than the shuttle.

Chris Ferguson is a former NASA astronaut who was hired by Boeing to help design and build the Starliner; he could be one of the first people to fly on it next year.

In 2016, he told Quartz that in the old days, “if we thought we needed it, by god, we went and did it. Now, since we are in a fixed-priced environment, we’re all doing this an order of magnitude cheaper. We’re going to design everything to meet the requirements and be as safe as possible, but we’re not going to put a lot of bells and whistles on the outside.”

Capsule conundrums

That’s not to suggest the Starliner is unsophisticated: It is capable of carrying seven people, flying and docking with the ISS autonomously, and descending by parachute to land on solid ground, rather than the ocean, where American capsules have traditionally wound up.

Its designers drew upon the latest advances in user-interface design, from spacecraft like Lockheed Martin’s Orion to the latest generation of military aircraft to nuclear industry control systems. One major difference between the Starliner and SpaceX’s rival Crew Dragon, however, is the former’s reliance of physical switches rather than touch-screens, though designers did nix the need for a nearby stick to toggle hard-to-reach buttons.

Boeing’s engineers have had to overcome a variety of engineering challenges. Attaching the Starliner capsule to the Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, proved tricky. They had to adjust flight controls to adapt to the new aerodynamics, and add a special skirt around the spacecraft to ensure that the joint between the first and second stages of the rocket was not buffeted by heavy winds.

Tests of the vehicle, as they are wont to do, delivered unexpected results. One emergency abort test led to leaking toxic fuel and forced engineers to redesign the vehicle’s internal plumbing. The parachutes may be easy to overlook with everything else going on in a rocket, but Starliner’s designers also had to work to ensure they had reliable systems to bring the capsule back down once its mission is complete.

The future of human spaceflight

If all goes as planned, NASA expects that it will begin using the vehicle to fly astronauts to the station sometime in 2020. The agency’s scientists are thrilled by the possibility of regular commercial service to the station—it will mean more astronauts on board and thus more orbital lab techs to manage onboard experiments.

Success will also validate the decision to outsource design and operations to a private company rather than doing it all in-house, though Boeing has hired NASA’s Johnson Space Center to handle ground-control duties rather than taking them on itself, just as SpaceX does. NASA is bullish about the possibility of having private actors take on more of humanity’s outpost in low-Earth orbit, but doing so will require cheaper, reliable transportation—something the new vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX could provide.

This summer, the space agency announced that private citizens and companies will be able to purchase seats on the new spacecraft, as long as they pay for the resources they use onboard the station. That could kick off a new era of space tourism and business, accelerating the vision of space entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of microgravity in orbit to produce new materials, like advanced fiber optic cables, or new drugs.

An analogy prized by space entrepreneurs is to the 20th century, when the US government began to subsidize the delivery of mail by airplanes. Commercial aviation was then in its infancy, but in 1926 William Boeing won the contract to deliver mail between Chicago and San Francisco with his then-new Model 40A plane. The airmail program would eventually be tarnished by scandal, but it is credited with launching the US aviation industry, including the companies that would become today’s Boeing, United Technologies Corporation, and United Airlines.

That was almost a century ago—and we may remember NASA’s decision to finance private space travel as the dawn of similarly new age of transportation.