The Significance of Starliner

On June 5 at 10:52 a.m. EDT, NASA launched the first crewed Boeing Starliner CST-100 into orbit for a rendezvous with the ISS. NASA used an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance (ULA). The Atlas V has been a reliable workhorse for NASA since 2002. The video, streamed from NASA, shows the launch from T−10 through solid rocket booster (SRB) separation. At that point the spacecraft is 2:20 into its ascent, at an altitude around 75 km, and moving with a speed close to 2000 m/s (Mach 6).

Starliner was designed to be compatible with several launch vehicles, including the Falcon 9, Delta IV, and Vulcan Centaur. The more compatible launch vehicles, the better for vehicle availability and mission versatility — vehicle payload ratings and orbital altitude capabilities differ.

Starliner is a significant step forward, as it is the fourth spacecraft to be certified for human spaceflight by NASA. It’s the first since NASA ended the Space Shuttle program back in July 2011. Starliner will be used for near-Earth missions only, and it replaces the need for “hitching a ride” on a Russian Soyuz to get to the ISS. Tickets went for an average of $56 million per seat, but have recently risen to $86 million.

By comparison, the first launch of Starliner is estimated to have cost $90 million per seat, though that cost will come down as the program scales up. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch system costs $72 million per seat as of their latest contract with NASA. Truth be told, NASA will likely continue their “ride sharing” with Russian cosmonauts, though not as frequently. There is scientific, diplomatic, and practical value to both parties despite our current political tensions.

Below is a mock-up of a Starliner capsule with the hatch open. With an interior volume of 390 ft3 (and capacity for up to 7 astronauts) it’s quite spacious compared to the capsules used in projects Mercury (36 ft3, one astronaut), Gemini (55 ft3, 2 astronauts), and Apollo (370 ft3 command module + lander, 3 astronauts):

And here’s a photo showing Starliner as it approaches the ISS the day after launch. It’s hatch is open and ready for docking:

Of note, the Space Shuttle had a far larger habitable volume (2,625 ft3) and on one mission carried 8 astronauts (usually 7) into orbit, but the Shuttle was in a different category of launch systems.

Our space fleet will soon be joined by the Orion MPCV (multi-purpose crew vehicle), which is certified for human spaceflight but has not yet flown with a crew. It has a habitable volume of 316 ft3, and is designed for a crew of up to 4 astronauts. More importantly, it is intended for longer missions and will be used to return humans to the Moon in a year or so as part of the Artemis program. It will be launched using NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The SLS proved itself on the Artemis 1 mission, launching on Nov 16, 2022, flying around the Moon, and splashing down in the Pacific west of Baja 25.5 days later. Orion’s first crewed mission to low Earth orbit is currently scheduled for “no sooner than September 2025.”

This an exciting period in the history of manned space flight. The Artemis program will soon return us to the Moon, and later establish a permanent base near the Moon’s South Pole — where water ice is expected to be found. SpaceX will be part of this effort, using its Falcon Heavy rocket to put the lunar Gateway into orbit around the Moon. Gateway will be the first space station to orbit the Moon, and act as a stepping-off point to reach the lunar surface.

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