The US wanted two redundant ways to get astronauts into space, and now it nearly has them after an uncrewed Boeing Starliner arrived at the International Space Station over the weekend.
The second privately owned spacecraft built through the commercial crew program after SpaceX’s Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner promises to expand both NASA’s scientific work and give a new option to companies and individual seeking transport to space.
NASA initially partnered with Boeing in 2014 to build a vehicle to carry astronauts from the Earth to the orbital laboratory, but attempts at test-flights in 2019 and 2021 failed, revealing serious problems. After launching to orbit last week, the Starliner reached its docking port at the ISS on the evening of May 20, where astronauts already onboard popped open its hatch the next morning.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing: The vehicle had two thrusters fail during flight for as yet unknown reasons, but Starliner was designed with built-in redundancy for just that scenario and was able maneuver in space without any danger. A heat-control system also malfunctioned, and it took two tries to get its docking adapter to work.
Still, that’s what you expect from a spacecraft on its shake-down cruise. After spending the next several days on orbit, it will need to safely return to Earth for a parachute landing in New Mexico. Then, Boeing’s engineers will analyze the vehicle to prepare for a flight test with actual astronauts sometime in the next year. A panel of independent safety advisers urged them to take their time, particularly with a potential redesign of some troubled valves under consideration.
When Starliner is ready for regular service, it will be key to realizing NASA’s vision for the future of space activity near our planet. More astronauts will be able to visit the International Space Station more often, enabling more scientific work. And the vehicle will create more capacity for the kinds of private missions that the space agency says? will seed the development of private space stations.
Most importantly, the Starliner will break SpaceX’s monopoly on flying astronauts for western countries and companies. The only other human-rated spacecraft are Russia’s Soyuz and China’s similar Shenzou. That gives SpaceX serious pricing power when it negotiates with NASA and other customers who can’t or won’t fly on those state-owned systems.
If Boeing is prepared to expand its human spaceflight services, we may finally see the falling cost of going to space that the space industry has promised.