Two halves of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft sit just off the ground inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center. There, Boeing engineers continue work on a spacecraft that will ferry NASA astronauts from U.S. soil for the first since the Shuttle program retired.

Boeing CST 100 comes together

Engineer lines up the top half of CST-100 with the bottom. Credit: Boeing

The two halves snap together completing a milestone event for the CST-100 program.

Boeing highlighted the milestone event in the latest issue of Boeing Frontiers. Engineers at the company have been busy working on these spacecraft for the better part of five years. Four vehicles are currently in production as part of the Starliner program. Several more are in testing.

As the two pieces of the CST-100 come together, engineers insert and tighten 216 bolts. Three days later, they tighten them again thanks to the omnipresent Florida humidity. I thought Alabama was bad. Nothing prepared me when I visited my brother a few years ago. There’s humidity, and then there’s the hell that is northeast Florida.

Boeing is still at least a year away from the first unmanned flight. The current schedule has that flight launching just a few months before its first trip to the space station with astronauts behind the joystick in 2018.

Boeing might be best known for their aircraft, but they are a staple of the aerospace industry. The talented engineers at Boeing had a hand in each American manned spacecraft. And many of the people responsible for getting the Shuttle program off the ground are still there.

Mike DeCarlo is one of them.

“I prepared Endeavour, Discovery and Atlantis for their final flights, and bolted Atlantis into place at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex,” DeCarlo said. “I love this. This has been in my blood since I got out of school. I really want to get us back up there.”

Now, he’s making a Starliner seat pallet that can hold five people. Or operating the crane that lowered the top half of CST-100 onto the bottom half. DeCarlo knows some of the astronauts who may take a Starliner to the ISS soon.

Months of rigorous testing ahead

Whether it’s shaking, pushing and pulling in a controlled atmosphere in Huntington Beach, California. Or, hitching a ride seven miles into the air attached to a balloon over New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. Boeing will stress their new spacecraft every way imaginable to ensure it can handle the rigors of reaching space.

While those tests are going on, engineers are building a mission simulator for astronauts in St. Louis. Early next year, it will be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, future CST-100 crew will learn the ins and outs of piloting the first American spacecraft in years.

CST-100 and reusability

At least two of the Starliner spacecraft are being built to head into space. Boeing is jumping aboard the reusable bandwagon with each spacecraft capable of making up to 10 round-trips to the ISS.

Boeing’s CST-100 will opt for ground landings at designated sites in the U.S. After landing, the spacecraft will head back to Florida, get checked out and head back to the ISS.

The reusability aspect helps bring down costs for Boeing. And more importantly, NASA.

Right now, NASA shells out $81 million per seat aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. According to Boeing’s Chris Ferguson, it won’t cost that much for a seat aboard a Starliner CST-100. We still don’t have specifics, but don’t expect taxpayers to be dropping a couple of hundred million dollars to send a crew to the ISS. Plus, with more private companies like SpaceX involved in aerospace – the competition will help drive prices lower.

It never gets old watching folks push into the final frontier. And the past few years have only been more exciting as new companies come in. Now, I just need to get down to Cape Canaveral see it in person. Watching online is fun, but nothing probably beats feeling the roar of an Atlas V rocket thundering into the sky.