What the Boeing Starliner Launch Means for the Future of Commercial Space Flights

Boeing's Starliner spacecraft launched its first test flight into space on Friday, marking a significant step towards making commercial flights to space a reality.

The historic maiden voyage of the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner took off just before 7 a.m. (local time) on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) at 8:08 a.m. (local time) on December 21 and return via a parachute-assisted landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 5:47 a.m (local time) on December 28, NASA said.

The Starliner, manned by a "dummy astronaut" named "Rosie," is carrying 600 pounds of crew supplies, including Christmas gifts for the ISS crew, and equipment to the space station.

The test flight aims to collect data on the performance of the Atlas V rocket, Starliner spacecraft, and ground systems, as well as in-orbit, docking and landing operations, and "return some critical research samples to Earth," NASA notes. The data will be used by NASA in the process of certifying Boeing's crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the space station.

The Starliner's uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which has been working with American aerospace companies since 2010 to develop human spaceflight systems.

NASA's Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry through a public-private partnership to launch astronauts on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil for the first time since 2011.

"The goal is to have safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and foster commercial access to other potential low-Earth orbit destinations," NASA explains.

A low Earth orbit (LEO) is an orbit centered around the Earth and requires the lowest amount of energy for satellite placement, which makes satellites and space stations more accessible for crew and servicing. The ISS is in a LEO orbit.

The latest launch serves as a dress rehearsal for Starliner's first-ever Crewed Flight Test (CFT) which, if all goes smoothly, is scheduled to begin in 2020 and will see NASA astronauts Michael Fincke, Nicole Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson be sent to the ISS.

The first crewed trip on Starliner will be followed by the spacecraft's first operational mission, crewed by NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Josh Cassada, Space.com reports.

Starliner's historic flight marks the dawn of a new era for the commercial space industry, opening up the potential for non-astronauts to journey into space.

"We're talking about technology development, we're talking about science, but we're also talking about folks that can capture the amazement of space," Mann notes, CBS News reports.

"So maybe teachers, maybe journalists, maybe artists. ...Those possibilities are just beginning," she added.

After launching at 6:36 am ET, #Starliner is on its way to the @Space_Station! Astronauts will welcome it aboard upon docking to the Harmony module at 8:27 am ET tomorrow, December 21, where it will stay until December 28. https://t.co/fjYrsBNbgG

— Johnson Space Center (@NASA_Johnson) December 20, 2019

"We're moving into a new era, we are going to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the shuttle, and we're going to do that in the first part of next year year," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine notes.

"But we're doing it in a way that has never been done before. This time, we're going to go with commercial partners. NASA is done purchasing, owning and operating the hardware. We're buying a service, the goal being that NASA wants to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace for human spaceflight," he adds.

The Starliner is designed to carry seven passengers for missions to low-Earth orbit. It can carry up to four NASA crew members for NASA service missions to the International Space Station for scientific research. The Starliner is reusable up to 10 times and features an "innovative, weldless structure" as well as wireless internet and tablet technology for crew interfaces, Boeing states.

"Over time, safety will improve, costs will improve," Ferguson said, CBS News reports.

"And I really think that that is the long pole out there, can we bring the cost of an orbital flight down to the realm at which perhaps somebody that is of moderate means can do it? We probably are a few years away from that. But we won't get there until we start. And what we're going to see (Friday) is the start," he added.

Newsweek has contacted NASA and Boeing for further comment on the latest test flight and the future of commercial space flights.

Earlier this year, Elon Musk's SpaceX, NASA's other commercial crew contractor, successfully launched the first test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner artist rendering
An artist's rendering of Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner docking to the International Space Station. Boeing