Starting in 2017 or 2018, Boeing will begin ferrying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Today, at the opening ceremony for the Florida facility where it'll build its spacecraft, the company also announced the vehicle's name: the Starliner.
The Starliner (previously known as the CST-100) is a cone-shaped capsule designed to be launched into orbit atop a rocket, carrying up to seven people into space. Along with SpaceX's Dragon, it will run regular crewed missions to the space station, replacing NASA's Space Shuttle, which was retired in 2011.
Why Boeing is entering the human spaceflight business
In 2006, with NASA's Space Shuttle facing retirement and no successor craft ready to take its place, NASA announced that it was seeking private partners to transport cargo and crew to and from the International Space Station. The idea is that such an arrangement would free up NASA to focus on more ambitious missions — like sending humans to Mars — while private companies could develop the capacity to handle the more routine missions to low Earth orbit.
Subsequently, NASA selected SpaceX and the Orbital Sciences Corporation to carry out cargo missions to the space station, which began in 2012. Meanwhile, SpaceX and Boeing have been picked to handle missions transporting humans to and from the station. Those companies haven't started yet, so in the meantime, NASA has been paying Russia to shuttle its astronauts back and forth. The latest contract, signed in August, calls for NASA to pay more than $80 million per seat.
Plans originally called for Boeing and SpaceX to begin flying this year, but that target has been repeatedly pushed back, mainly because Congress keeps under-allocating the money needed to pay for the program. Things have gotten so bad that NASA administrator Charles Bolden recently wrote a public letter chastising Congress for the lack of funding, and blaming lawmakers for the $490 million that will be given to Russia as part of the new contract.
Still, NASA plans for flights to start in 2017 or 2018. The opening of Boeing's Starliner facility is an important step.
How the Starliner will work
Once it's ready, the Starliner will be launched into space atop a single-use rocket. Initially, this will be an Atlas V (which was developed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and has been putting satellites in space since 2002), but it could eventually be compatible with other rockets as well. On the way to orbit, the rocket will fall away and break apart, allowing the capsule to dock with the space station, then eventually return, bringing astronauts and cargo back to Earth.
Design-wise, the Starliner is not quite as innovative as SpaceX's Dragon. Boeing seems to be emphasizing reliability instead. It closely resembles NASA's own Orion capsule (which will eventually be used for crewed missions to deep space), and the company touts its "heritage hardware," which is based off designs used in previous missions. The parachutes, for instance, were adapted from those used in the Apollo missions to the moon.
So far, Boeing has conducted several types of tests on the ground, as well as a 2012 drop test that involved dropping it from 14,000 feet to assess its parachutes and airbag landing system. The company plans for the first test flight in 2016 — and if all goes to plan, crewed missions will follow the next year.