Some of us who have vivid memories of famous spacecraft and rockets that ‘had their day’ in the consciousness of the world may wonder what prominent space agencies are working on today that in stature could match their former technological achievements. If any of us have found ourselves pondering this point then an inverted little ‘spinner-top-like’ craft currently in production for NASA is worth a look, and it originally went by the designation CST-100, now it is known as Starliner.

An artist's impression of new Boeing CST-100 in orbit (Image credit: Boeing via NASA)

An artist’s impression of the new Boeing CST-100 Starliner in orbit. The corrugated panels on the service module are thermal radiators. The nozzles of the four Launch Abort System thrusters are protruding from the underside of the spacecraft. Other thrusters are accommodated in the “doghouses” spaced around the service module. (Image credit: Boeing via NASA)


Aerospace giant Boeing is currently one of two American companies (the other is SpaceX) contracted under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) which aims to make human spaceflight services available to both commercial and government customers. CPP is achieving this by employing the space industry’s own innovative capabilities in conjunction with NASA’s 50 years of human spaceflight experience.


Larger than Apollo but smaller than Orion: CST-100 spacecraft mock-up at Boeing, Houston. CREDIT: NASA/Markowitz

Larger than Apollo but smaller than Orion: CST-100 Starliner spacecraft mock-up at Boeing’s Houston facility. Apollo spacecraft were built by North American Aviation which after changing its name to Rockwell was absorbed into Boeing, so perhaps the CST-100 can be regarded as a son of Apollo.
(Image credit: NASA/Markowitz)


The three factors heading Boeing’s design brief are for it to produce a crew transportation vehicle that is safe, cost-effective, and reliable. The Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100’s job will be to carry up to seven passengers (or a mixture of cargo and crew) to various destinations in low-Earth orbit, such as the ISS or the Bigelow Station that is currently in development. Its name is in part a reflection of Boeing’s aircraft heritage and a reference to the Karman Line that marks the edge of space 100km above the Earth’s surface. However with its design engineers were not just prepared to ‘play safe’ and follow traditional lines of construction, the team at Boeing have been thinking outside the box and are currently employing new assembly methods to build a spacecraft they feel is worthy of the title ‘next generation’.


CST-100 about to dock with the ISS (artist impression). (Image credit: Boeing)

A CST-100 Starliner about to dock with the ISS (artist’s impression). The new spacecraft’s design has been optimised for its role as a taxi to the ISS. It could not be used to take crews beyond LEO and back without substantial modifications.
(Image credit: Boeing)


At a glance the Starliner spacecraft appears to be reminiscent of Boeing’s former Apollo-era capsules, but on closer inspection there is a lot less to support this comparison as may have been first imagined. With a spun-formed shell for the craft now firmly on the table, the designers have in one fell swoop completely eradicated the welding-related structural risks that would otherwise be associated with this type of capsule. This break from the past also potentially kills three other birds with the one stone; the capsule’s overall mass becomes significantly reduced, along with the production timescale, and also by implication therefore the cost.

Although due to launch initially on an Atlas V rocket, the forward-thinking design team are keen to make the vehicle as flexible as possible, and available for use in the maximum number of scenarios. To this end the Starliner will be ‘launch vehicle agnostic’, or have the ability to be launched on other types of rocket as well. Other design advances include upgraded thermal protection techniques and the incorporation of wireless internet to both facilitate docking with the ISS and crew communication. The craft will also have a ‘Pusher Abort System’ allowing for its occupants to escape safely in the event of an emergency during launch or ascent to orbit.


Artist’s illustration: CST-100- type spacecraft mounted on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for NASA’s CCP programme. CREDIT:  NASA (via Wikimedia Commons)

Artist’s illustration: CST-100- type spacecraft mounted on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for NASA’s CCP programme.
(image credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons)


Another major departure from previous spacecraft piloted by astronauts is that the Starliner will require less input from its crew along the way to operate it. For this reason its interior will be able to have a much more aesthetically pleasing, futuristic appearance, devoid of the walls of switches and buttons that previously told of a heavy dependence on manual control. Boeing’s director of Crew and Mission Systems, Chris Ferguson puts it like this: “When these guys go up in this, they’re primary mission is not to fly the spacecraft, they’re primary mission is to go to the space station for six months. So we don’t want to burden them with an inordinate amount of training to fly this vehicle. We want it to be intuitive.”


Astronaut Randy Bresnik in the iconic launch and re-entry suit about to test ergonomics inside a mock-up CST-100 capsule in Texas. (image credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

Astronaut Randy Bresnik in the iconic launch and re-entry suit about to test ergonomics inside a mock-up CST-100 capsule in Texas.
(image credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons)


The Starliner therefore disposes of hefty crew manuals, and in their place provides astronauts with tablet technology. Boeing’s blue LED “Sky Lighting” (as developed for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner airliner) on the inside will also add to the hopefully serene and welcoming environment for its crew to enjoy. Boeing has already conducted two four-hour mock-up sessions with astronauts Randy Bresnik and Serena Aunon wearing the orange launch-and-entry flight suits, testing manoeuvrability inside the craft. A former NASA astronaut himself, Chris Ferguson feels the astronauts’ input into the spacecraft’s development is critical: “They’re the ones who will take our spacecraft into flight (so)… We’ll probably make one more go-around and make sure that everything is just the way they like it.” So just how well are things going? Well the Starliner design has now successfully completed a wind-tunnel test and a second parachute drop test on the Delamar dry lake bed in Nevada. Demonstrating operation of the capsule’s whole landing system, after being released from beneath a helicopter at 14000 ft (4.25 km), the drogue parachute deployed followed by the main parachute following which the CST-100 gently descended and kissed the ground on a cushion of six inflated airbags. Moreover, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) is beginning to construct parts for the two rockets that will launch the CST-100 spacecraft in 2017.


CST-100 interior: In this orientation, with the ‘back wall’ of the capsule misleadingly looking like ‘the floor’, astronauts would be strapped into their seats lying ‘on their backs’ for launch.  CREDIT: NASA/Markowitz

Starliner interior: In this orientation, with the ‘back wall’ of the capsule misleadingly looking like ‘the floor’, astronauts would be strapped into their seats lying ‘on their backs’ for launch.
(image credit: NASA/Markowitz)


Although fitted for taking a crew to space, AV-073 (or the 73rd Atlas V that will be built) is to serve in the initial unmanned orbital test flight of the Starliner spacecraft only. This test is an essential requisite of the CST-100 project however because until now, this rocket has only ever lifted robotic probes, satellites and Martian rovers to space. The second rocket to be built, AV-080 (or the 80th Atlas V booster) on the other hand will take the CST-100’s first human cargo actually into space and up to the International Space Station. Albeit, also a test only, the mission’s crucial objectives will only have been met when, over the course of a few days, the systems of the Boeing spacecraft have been assessed in terms of performance and then the CST-100Starliner  returns its crew safely back to the USA. In terms of the progress in the CST-100 project, perhaps Ferguson’s words paint the picture the best: “The last time we were at this stage of development for a human spacecraft was in the 1970s when we were building the Shuttle.”


In May 2015 NASA awarded Boeing a contract to send a crew to the ISS in late 2017. This will be the first NASA mission to the ISS launched from the US since the Shuttle was retired in 2011.

(Article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)

Further Reading

CST-100 page at


Doug Johnson · August 7, 2018 at 00:59

Given that NASA long ago “invented the wheel”, why then by using ex-NASA engineers, having free access to NASA data collected over the decades plus receiving billions upon billions of dollars, can Boeing and SpaceX not produce a spacecraft more quickly? These spacecraft should have been relatively problem free to develop by using essentially off the shelf technology! I am a huge NASA fan and respect both Boeing and SpaceX immensely but the question remains. Why with the shuttle retired in 2011, are we probably going to get our first flight since then in 2019? I know the financial resources are not terribly robust compared to Mercury/Gemini/Apollo but again, the heavy lifting (no pun intended) has already been done! Please…somebody explain this to me.

WSF POET · March 2, 2016 at 08:58

If someone could edit this guy’s stuff into decipherability, he may have something ??!

    admin · March 2, 2016 at 10:11

    Dear WSF, thank you for your comment., but I am not sure who you are referring to.

Scott Fisher BA ISU · October 26, 2015 at 04:33

Has the consideration been given to a think tank of current NASA contractors and technological luminaries to the consideration of reving up a nanotechnology revolution to all things needed for launch only payload materials and Launching technologies that are lift extant. This would not only drive current earthbound technological use but enhance the capability of payload options and increased technologically available materials.

Secondly, in the spirit of sneaking up on inertia, how about highest altitude possible payloading from lower high altitude dirigible lifted hook captured payloads dropping slow vertical rising high-to-horizontally shifting gliders for next level up altitude appropriate planes to capture THEIR payloads in a brief concomitantly moving hih up horizontal mutual direction.

These planes powered at between jet and rocket thrust technology could lift the material to the boumdary of wing lift capabilty and then again lateral to rocket ship high up and a concommitant high horiizontal.moving craft at lown ionosphere levels that would THEN rocket them in slow rising riding whatever atmospheric density left for.lift that could be used at higher speeds.

atmoshere leveels rport style ship and materials launching for seperate individually “lifted” payloads as cute to assemble integrated craft later at highel.elevation levels where forward vs horizontal momentum could be exploited. Thoughts are solar energy powered battery-less at goal maximization appropriate altitude driven craft lateraling payloads or fuel to orbit dedicated craft movimg in a temporary lateral moving concommitant direction to Load up for higher altitude once top stratospheric to low ionospheric orbit approaches completion ????!!!!

All this would occur with a optimized docking and seperation type component tactical caability involving.possible 3 to 4 dock/separation events within which each combination of technology maximizes safety and set down. Secondary goals would material reuse and recovery to offset added docking and intralevel altitude ship tactical positioning. WSF P


    admin · October 28, 2015 at 10:20

    Dear Scott, I am afraid that this query would be better addressed to NASA itself.

    Scott W. Fisher BA · January 8, 2016 at 06:17

    WHAT!!!? NO option to edit this outpouring of late night, random, free associative analytically juxtaposed outpouring ! OMG ????? ( o _ -) SWF

W S Fisher. Poet · September 18, 2015 at 20:26

An amazingly gratifying experience to know that the collective zeitgeist of the powers that be in govt. understand/accept that just the modest acquisition of lunar travel and the potential construction of a shielded digital uber library above could house & usher in a locale to house the collective wisdom of mankind to date! This insurance coupled with a longevity and solar power enhanced looping, repeating radio beacon of streaming data that broadcasts that digitized knowledge, sending it in rhythmically scheduled in quarterly broadcasts to all earth would ensure the access worldwide to a massive encyclopedic lighthouse beacon of repeating human knowledge to weather and supply humankind anew in the face of any disaster however globally massive it maybe. Kudos all, your pushing this small step up to the counter to get to the big acorn cookie jar and light the darkness with hope should it return again after some unimagined global catastrophe! W S Fisher Poet

Steve · June 10, 2015 at 21:04

Looks like advantage Dragon 2. You’d think three times more money would buy us a capsule that’s 50% better. Instead we get this blast from the past.

    Arth · October 24, 2015 at 18:03

    Any deal that Boeing gets from NASA is going to include at least a billion dollars profit. Making it really a cost plus capsule.

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