Currently, NASA sends its astronauts to ISS aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. With the contract due to expire in 2019, the American space agency hopes to hasten the timeline to certify private companies Boeing and SpaceX, to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. For that, the agency funded and turned the Boeing’s Starliner test flight into a full-fledged mission. 

Boeing, an American multinational corporation in association with NASA is developing a new spacecraft called the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner. Right now, the Starliner can carry up to seven passengers as far as the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth Orbit. The reusable spacecraft is intended to be the world’s first commercial space vehicle. To reduce the training time for its crew, it will also be fully autonomous.

As told by Boeing representative Tony Castilleja Jr, Starliner will initially be carrying the passengers and science experiments to the International Space Station. The automated flight system is equipped with tablets and touch screens which enables the pilot to interact with it and requires only one astronaut to fly it. The Starliner will also bring experiments aimed at improving the life in space, help refine ways to grow vegetables in space and also deliver 3D printing tools and equipment parts to the ISS. 

After successfully ferrying the passengers to as far as the ISS, the Engineers are also developing plans to establish an orbiting base near the moon. The moon base called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOPG) or just “the Gateway” will be used as a testing ground and is envisioned as a critical learning base. On the Gateway, scientists intend to develop techniques which would insulate the crew from intense radiation that does not reach low Earth orbit and the ISS. Additionally, it could also serve as a hub for the ambitious Mars missions. The outpost could help launch missions which can first help explore the Mars from orbit and eventually send researchers to the planet’s surface for the initial stages of colonization.  It can also be used as a fuelling station and can function as a depot to ferry Mars passengers to and from Earth and the moon.

An unmanned maiden test flight of the Starliner spacecraft will be launched by the Atlas V rocket and scheduled to take place as soon as August 2018.