What is the Boeing Starliner space capsule and when will it launch astronauts?

The craft is meant to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station

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Nasa could soon have a second “taxi ride” to the International Space Station for its astronauts when aerospace company Boeing starts commercial operations of its CST-100 Starliner capsule.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have been dominating the market since 2020 by launching astronauts, including an Emirati and two Saudi astronauts, to the space station.

Boeing and SpaceX are part of Nasa's Commercial Crew Programme, in which the agency hires the services of private companies to send humans and cargo to and from the space station.

After several delays, Boeing is planning to launch a crewed test flight in May, with commercial operations expected to begin next year.

“The flight test, currently scheduled to launch in early May due to space station scheduling, will transport Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the orbiting laboratory for a planned stay of up to two weeks,” Nasa said on Friday.

Boeing has already completed an uncrewed test flight to the space station in 2022 when a Starliner capsule launched from Florida and docked at the ISS a day later.

The launch came almost three years after a failed test flight in 2019 that foiled the spacecraft's ability to reach the station due to a software glitch.

Starliner compared to SpaceX Dragon

The Starliner is also reusable like SpaceX's Dragon craft, but it has been designed to carry out a ground landing using airbags, as compared to the Dragon, which splashes down in the ocean.

Dragon has a more round, sleek appearance, while Starliner features the design of a traditional space capsule.

Inside Starliner Capsule

Inside Starliner Capsule

SpaceX designers added four windows to its spacecraft for astronauts while the Starliner has two.

Both capsules are equipped with modern interiors and touchscreen controls, but their seat layouts are different.

Dragon has a toilet on board, but it's not yet clear if Starliner has one too.

When is Starliner launching astronauts?

The first crewed mission is expected to take place in early May and will launch Mr Wilmore and Ms Williams to the space station as part of a test flight.

The test flight must take place before Boeing can start commercial operations to prove to Nasa that it can safely transport humans.

Boeing has been trying to develop a commercial capsule for about a decade, with a launch that has been plagued with delays owing to technical problems.

The astronauts it is carrying on the test flight are veterans of Nasa who have logged hundreds of days in space.

Mr Wilmore is a US Navy captain who spent a total of 178 days in space. He was selected as an astronaut in 2000.

Ms Williams, a retired Navy captain, has logged 322 days in space and has completed seven spacewalks totalling 50 hours and 40 minutes.

The Starliner will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket from the Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Updated: March 11, 2024, 11:52 AM