America’s Private Space Race Heats Up

SpaceX Crew Dragon, courtesy of SpaceX-Imagery

The 21st Century is an exciting time to be studying aerospace engineering or aeronautics technology, as the new American Space Race has begun!

After the Space Shuttle program was brought to an end in 2011, NASA no longer had a spacecraft system capable of sending humans to space. As a result, it was forced to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the Russian Soyuz space vehicle, at a high cost.

In 2014, NASA contracted with private companies, including Boeing and SpaceX, to develop vehicles for transporting astronauts to the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. This initiative aimed to ensure safe, reliable, and cost-effective human transportation to and from the ISS through partnerships with American private industry.

Mark R. Whittington, who reports frequently on space policy, wrote that Boeing “was the favorite of congressional appropriators. Boeing has provided space hardware since the Apollo program. SpaceX was an upstart company viewed with suspicion and even hostility.”

Fast forward to 2024…

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, launched on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, has been successfully transporting astronauts to the ISS since May 2020 (a total of 12 times). On top of that, he live-streams the entire thing on his own platform (X), made possible by the broadband satellite network he created in space!

Meanwhile, after years of delays, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner finally sent its first crewed flight atop an Atlas V rocket to the ISS on June 5, 2024. Despite some helium leaks, the Starliner capsule docked at the orbiting laboratory in a major milestone for Boeing.

But SpaceX is still way ahead. The day after Boeing’s Starliner launch, SpaceX’s giant Starship rocket (the largest, heaviest, most powerful rocket ever!) survived a dramatic and fiery re-entry, landing in the Indian Ocean after its fourth flight test. The successful re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere is a key milestone for SpaceX’s Starship, designed for future missions to the moon and beyond. Elon Musk’s ambitious project aims to pave the way for interplanetary travel.

Starliner vs. Crew Dragon

Let’s compare the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon—both of which are designed to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. Here are the key differences:


  • SpaceX Crew Dragon: Developed by SpaceX.
  • Boeing Starliner: Manufactured by Boeing.

Contract and Cost

Successful Flights

  • SpaceX Crew Dragon entered service in 2019 with the Demo-1 flight, and performed its first flight with astronauts on May 30, 2020, during the Crew Dragon Demo-2 flight. Since then, it has successfully flown humans and cargo to the ISS multiple times.
  • Boeing Starliner encountered technical problems during its uncrewed orbital test flight in December 2020, preventing it from docking with the ISS. After several failed attempts, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft finally succeeded on June 5, 2024.

Design and Features

  • SpaceX Crew Dragon:
    • Designed to carry up to four astronauts for NASA missions.
    • Fully autonomous but can be monitored and controlled by onboard astronauts and SpaceX mission control.
    • Intended to be reusable up to 10 times.
    • Lands in water.
  • Boeing Starliner:
    • Designed to accommodate seven passengers (but will carry four NASA crew members to the ISS).
    • Completely autonomous.
    • Intended to be reusable up to 10 times.
    • Has airbags for landing on land.

In summary, while both capsules serve NASA’s goals, they represent different approaches to design and execution.

Boeing vs. SpaceX

On June 5, 2024, Boeing’s new Starliner spaceship launched a pair of NASA astronauts into space for its first crewed test flight to the ISS. The legacy aerospace company’s launch lagged four years behind the one for SpaceX’s competing Crew Dragon capsule, which already has a successful track record, perhaps giving the American public a newfound appreciation for SpaceX’s engineering style and prowess.

This goes to show that SpaceX is a small, young, nimble company that can make and execute decisions quickly, while Boeing is old, clunky, and bureaucratic.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica wrote a piece that exhaustively explains the results of the first commercial space race. In his article, he quoted former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver:

“The difference between the two company’s cultures, design philosophies, and decision-making structures allowed SpaceX to excel … where Boeing stumbled, even after receiving significantly more funding.”

Elon Musk, on X, was more specific but brutal. “Although Boeing got $4.2 billion to develop an astronaut capsule and SpaceX only got $2.6 billion, SpaceX finished 4 years sooner … Too many non-technical managers at Boeing.”

SpaceX is inspiring a whole new generation of space explorers! But its greatest contribution to space progress might be to have exposed the bloated bureaucracy that was the old space process, and how it has held back advancement for five decades.

Another contender worth noting is Axiom Space, which has flown three crewed missions to the ISS aboard SpaceX Dragon capsules but is concentrating more on space infrastructure, such as the first commercial space station.


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