With the Space Shuttle Atlantis touching down in 2011, the conclusion of NASA’s famed manned shuttle programme left a void in American space exploration. The absence of a replacement spacecraft and limited government funding posed a significant challenge, forcing the US to rely on Russian Soyuz capsules, at a staggering cost of US$80 million per seat, for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Amidst escalating tensions following Russia’s actions in Crimea, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, added insult to injury with pointed tweets suggesting the US should use a trampoline to reach the ISS. This underscored the predicament facing NASA, prompting a long-term solution: the Commercial Crew Programme (CCP).

After over a decade of development, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is poised for its first crewed launch, marking a significant milestone in CCP’s realisation. Makena Young from the Aerospace Security Project emphasises the challenges of space endeavours, noting that success requires persistence.

The CCP model shifts from NASA owning spacecraft to purchasing seats from commercial providers, offering a more flexible and cost-effective approach. Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon emerged as the frontrunners, with SpaceX taking the lead after successful launches.

Boeing’s Starliner, touted as a “next-generation space capsule,” boasts advanced features and spacious interiors. Despite setbacks, Boeing remains determined to deliver a reliable spacecraft.

For NASA, having multiple providers ensures continuous access to space. Jason Davis highlights the strategic importance of this redundancy, which also drives down costs, opening up spaceflight to commercial operators.

With private space travel on the horizon, Axiom Space has already secured private flights to the ISS, signalling a burgeoning market. Libby Jackson anticipates a shift towards privately operated space stations post-ISS era, fostering innovation and economic opportunities.

While competition drives progress, geopolitics remain influential. Despite strained relations, the US and Russia maintain cooperation on the ISS, but China emerges as a formidable space power, challenging America’s dominance.

Young underscores the importance of maintaining strategic advantage and diversifying access to space, especially amidst China’s rapid advancements. The successful launch of NASA’s Orion capsule further solidifies America’s reinvigorated presence in space, with three spacecraft in operation by 2024.