In space capsules, there’s little room but big improvements

Boeing and SpaceX are relying on the tried-and-true gumdrop-shaped capsule design as the two companies each develop spacecraft under NASA contracts to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

LOS ANGELES — In 1961, an American astronaut reached space for the first time and soared through the heavens in a gumdrop-shaped capsule.

Since then, people have flown to the moon, created space planes and designed rockets that return to Earth for precision landings. But when astronauts lift off next year from U.S. soil for the first time in six years, their vehicle of choice will be another capsule.

Boeing and SpaceX are relying on the tried-and-true design as the two companies each develop spacecraft under NASA contracts to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Despite the sleek spaceships of sci-fi imaginings or the familiar winged body of the shuttle, engineers have returned to the seemingly clunky capsule again and again for a simple reason — it works.

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“The capsule is a very durable technology,” said Matthew Hersch, assistant professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It may not be romantic to fly, but it’s going to get you there and back safely.”

Since the end of the shuttle program, the U.S. has relied on Russia to transport its astronauts to and from the space station in the Soyuz spacecraft, another capsule.

Boeing and SpaceX said they are confident their vehicles will fly next year, despite recent reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office noting that delays for the two companies have pushed the first test flights past the initial deadline.

The new spacecraft have a number of features that weren’t available on earlier capsules — touch-screen displays, large windows, more powerful electronics and lighter materials.

The spacesuits that astronauts will wear also have been slimmed down. SpaceX has released several photos of its spacesuit, which Chief Executive Elon Musk said was tested to ensure astronauts would stay safe even if the pressure in the capsule dropped suddenly. Boeing’s “Boeing blue” spacesuit is about 40 percent lighter than previous suits, and the gloves were specially designed to let astronauts interact with touch screens.

In the early days of the U.S. space program, astronauts lamented riding in anything that allowed for such limited human control. Borrowing the…

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