Boeing's First Space-Taxi

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Since 2011, NASA has depended on the Russians to send its astronauts to space from a launchpad in a remote part of Kazakhstan. But it’s a cumbersome and expensive endeavor, so NASA is working to relocate everything somewhere much closer: Florida.

Last year, NASA partnered with private companies Boeing and SpaceX and awarded them multi-billion-dollar contracts to develop American-built bases and spacecraft. This morning, Boeing unveiled the 78,000-square-foot processing facility where it will build its first-ever commercial-crew spacecraft.

The facility is a revamped former space shuttle hangar inside Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Once construction is complete, Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, christened the Starliner, will carry NASA astronauts directly from Florida to the International Space Station.

NASA had first hoped to start testing the spacecraft as early as 2015, but budget setbacks have lengthened that timeline. If all goes well, the first test launches will now take place in 2017.

The burgeoning commercial spacecraft project doesn’t just have implications for NASA.  It’s also an indication that non-astronaut space travel may finally come to fruition. For years, companies like Virgin Galactic have promised maiden flights for average (but wealthy) citizens, only to be derailed by operating problems and costly malfunctions. While Elon Musk’s promising commercial space venture SpaceX has seen rapid growth, it’s also faced a series of disasters.

As one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers, Boeing has the capacity—and the clout—to accomplish what smaller companies so far haven’t. Its $4.2 billion contract with NASA is already twice that of SpaceX’s, and the company has been a part of every American human-spaceflight program to date. If space tourism is to see any real success, this is where it will begin.