NASA is adamant we are about to enter an era of commercial space travel akin to the dawn of private air travel a century ago. It was no doubt with glee, then, that Boeing unveiled the infrastructure that will support its newly-named manned spacecraft: the CST-100 Starliner.
Previously known solely as the CST-100, the name fits in with Boeing’s “liner” series of vehicles, the Stratoliner and Dreamliner. The Apollo capsule-shaped Starliner will ultimately be capable of transporting four astronauts to destinations in low-Earth orbit, such as the International Space Station (ISS).
The spacecraft, which is largely automated, will complete a first unmanned flight to orbit by 2017 at the earliest, launching atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Manned flights will begin soon after.
"One hundred years ago we were on the dawn of the commercial aviation era and today, with the help of NASA, we're on the dawn of a new commercial space era," said Boeing's John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Space Exploration, in a statement. "It's been such a pleasure to work hand-in-hand with NASA on this commercial crew development, and when we look back 100 years from this point, I’m really excited about what we will have discovered."
The Starliner is being developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, together with SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. The latter is further ahead in its development, with a pad abort test to simulate a launchpad emergency performed earlier this year. Boeing and SpaceX were awarded $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion (£2.7 billion and £1.7 billion) respectively by NASA last year to develop their manned spacecraft.
At the unveiling last Friday, Boeing also revealed how it will repurpose existing infrastructure at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to build and operate Starliner. A large facility that was once used to process the Space Shuttle will now be the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF), while other buildings will serve as Boeing’s centers for launch and mission control.
The Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility will be used to prepare Starliner for launch. NASA/Kim Shiflett.
The Kennedy Space Center is set to get fairly busy in the coming years, with SpaceX also operating from there, while NASA will use it for launches of its Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion.
“I am proud of our success in transforming Kennedy Space Center to a 21st century, multi-user spaceport that is now capable of supporting the launch of all sizes and classes of vehicles,” said Robert Cabana, Kennedy’s center director in the statement. He said this would include “horizontal launches from the Shuttle Landing Facility,” perhaps alluding to the possibility of a vehicle like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo operating from the site.
The first manned launches of Starliner and Dragon will bring to an end a hiatus in U.S. manned spaceflight since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, and end their reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to reach orbit.