Ever since the decommissioning of the space shuttle program in 2011, there was a lack of crewed launch vehicles. The United States relies on Roscomos, the Russian space agency, to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The Soyuz rocket that launches astronauts into space has a great track record even with the recent launch failure (1); however, it is good to have many different options for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS. Therefore, companies like SpaceX and Boeing are currently developing new crewed capsules to help deliver more options for transportation into space. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon recently completed a successful unmanned test flight to and from the space station, and Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled to follow sometime in April 2019.
The Boeing Starliner has been in development for the past 5 years as a part of a $4.2 billion contract with NASA. This means that the Starliner will use an existing launch vehicle, the Atlas V, which will be provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which works together with NASA. In contrast, the Crew Dragon will use the reusable Falcon 9 rocket. The Boeing Starliner capsule like the Crew Dragon will be reusable for up to 10 missions with a short refurbishing time period between each launch. The capsule can seat up to seven astronauts but will typically only carry four astronauts to the ISS. The Starliner will automatically dock to the space station, but there are manual controls for astronauts as a backup. Unlike SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the Starliner will land on ground instead of the ocean. A system of parachutes and airbags under the capsule will help cushion the landing. (2)
In addition to the crew capsule, there is a service module that has thrusters for maneuvering the spacecraft in orbit to get to the ISS. The service module also contains the launch abort motors, which will allow the astronauts to land safely back to Earth upon any failure in the vehicle. (3)
The design of the Starliner is more a call back to the Apollo capsules used in the 1960s and 1970s but will provide a reliable ride to the ISS. On the other hand, the Crew Dragon is a little more radical with the design which is clearly a reflection of the goals and ideals of SpaceX. As mentioned before, the Starliner will use the Atlas V rocket created by ULA, but it is not limited to this rocket. Starliner will initially use the Atlas V rocket, but it was also designed for the Delta IV, Vulcan, and Falcon 9 rockets. (3)
Overall, the Boeing Starliner looks like a good addition to the small list of crewed spacecraft. The Starliner still must do initial tests, like what SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has done earlier in March. If everything goes well in April, there will be two new crewed spacecraft ready to transport astronauts to the International Space Station later this year.
Update: The first unmanned launch has been delayed to August 2019.