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All NASA astronauts have flown into outer space with the help of Boeing. From the very first Mercury capsule to the Apollo Program, from the space shuttles to the current missions involving the International Space Station: No one could have escaped the Earth's gravity without the help of the aerospace giant. Next year, Boeing hopes to write history again, with the CST-100 Starliner set to become a commercial crew vehicle that will once again put Americans into space. The company's biggest rival is SpaceX, which NASA also funded. Boeing Vice President John Mulholland was recently at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to make sure the Starliner is on track.

ZEIT ONLINE: In 2014, NASA provided Boeing with $4.2 billion dollars in funding to build a new, reusable spaceship to taxi astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Soon, it’s supposed to lift off for the first time. Are you on schedule?

John Mulholland: The last three years have been dramatic in terms of development. In 2014, we had our components laid out already. We knew what the CST-100 Starliner – our spaceship – should look like, what it should be capable of. But with that contract, we were able to move to final design, which took about one-and-a-half years. Then it was about building first components and initial testing. That’s what we’re doing this year and next. Then it’s about getting it to flight.

ZEIT ONLINE: After waiting so long for tangible results, what was the first piece you were able to physically touch?

Mulholland: The first piece of flight hardware came in years ago. But what I vividly remember are the domes, those big aluminium crew module domes. I saw them and knew: This is going to happen!

As vice president and program manager of Boeing's Commercial Crew Program, John Mulholland leads the development of the CST-100 Starliner system. © Boeing

ZEIT ONLINE: What kind of tests will the spacecraft have to undergo?

Mulholland: The Starliner is made of a service module and a crew module. The service module has all the propulsion systems for launch abort and for orbit and deorbit. We’re just testing those systems in New Mexico. All cold and hot tests will be done by the end of this year. All three crew modules are under construction right now. The first one is getting ready to be joined and all the power-up testing has been completed. It’s called Spacecraft 1 and will go out early next year to New Mexico for a pad abort test that is targeted for the second quarter.

ZEIT ONLINE: That’s a test to see how well the system could get the crew to safety in case of emergency...

Mulholland: … exactly. It is one of the precepts set by NASA. Without passing this test, we wouldn’t be allowed to send up humans at all.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why go through all this trouble anyway? Astronauts can fly to the International Space Station (ISS) using the russian Soyuz. They’ve been doing so for years now.

Mulholland: Ever since July 2011, the USA lost the ability to launch humans into space. That’s been over six years now and it has to change.

We need to maintain leadership.
John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President

ZEIT ONLINE: As a boost to the nation’s self-confidence? Is it all about pride?

Mulholland: It certainly is important to us. It’s the national imperative to keep pushing the boundaries and discover. We need to maintain leadership. But there’s another, less emotional reason: When the space shuttle was still flying, you had redundant systems to provide access to the ISS. After the last shuttle accident, we were grounded for two years. If it hadn't been for the Russians as partners, we would’ve had to de-man the ISS and potentially lose it. That’s where we are now: We just have Soyuz, and only having one ride for astronauts to and from the ISS could jeopardize a billion-dollar lab in space. So we’re building a new spaceship for transportation.