Taxi to the Space Station
Should the chief builder of the International Space Station be the company that offers taxi service there? Boeing thinks so.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, September 2013
(Page 2 of 5)
More savings come, Mulholland and Ferguson say, from a different kind of relationship with NASA. If and when it is finished, the CST-100 will be Boeing’s property, not the government’s. The agency need not be the only customer for the new spaceship, though it is the only one in sight, save for the ultra-high-end tourism promoter Space Adventures. NASA has accordingly pared back its usual control-freakery, setting broad goals for what the new vehicle should do—get a crew to and from the station safely—and milestones to meet before each funding round. (There have been three so far.)
The new deal with NASA “increases the velocity of decision-making and the stability of decision-making,” says Mulholland. “Because all the systems are so integrated, if you change one element once the design is already set, it becomes very complicated.”
Ken Bowersox, another former shuttle commander who has consulted with both Boeing and its chief rival in the commercial taxi race, SpaceX, says that in traditional space projects, half the cost comes with the last few capabilities, which are usually added for reasons of safety. “We could never build a vehicle as simple as the Soyuz,” he says, “which is why we don’t have a vehicle at the moment.”
NASA may be ready for a new spaceship paradigm, but is Boeing? This is the overriding question Mulholland and his team will have to answer if the CST-100 is to survive to the maiden voyage with actual pilots. The aviation icon has to fight for the commercial crew vehicle contract, and for the moment, one competitor already has chalked up a victory in a different area. SpaceX has won the “commercial cargo” contest, and its unmanned Dragon spacecraft has been lugging equipment to the station regularly since October 2012. (Orbital Sciences also will ferry cargo there on its Cygnus spacecraft.) A third contestant, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, remains in the running for providing a commercial crew taxi with its Dream Chaser, though during the last round of funding, in July 2012, NASA awarded it less than half the money it gave Boeing and SpaceX (see “The Other Guys,” Aug. 2013).
In a nutshell, Boeing’s mission with the CST-100 is to produce a vehicle that is more reliable than the competition’s while matching SpaceX on cost and speed. And Boeing managers are confident they can do just that. Mulholland points out that Boeing has plenty of commercial market credentials. He finds it “almost incredible that people would doubt the capability of a company that is the largest U.S. exporter [of commercial products].”
Mulholland acknowledges that while the new capsule is somewhat different from what the company has done before, Boeing has vast experience in getting people to space and back. He flaunts the cell of hardcore space enthusiasts he has recruited from within the vast Boeing corporate structure. “We have been very successful in getting a young cadre here that is just relentless,” he says. “I’m glad I don’t have to compete with them.”
Mulholland, a crisply organized technocrat whose taut, engineered sentences contrast with his relaxed business-casual dress, has a résumé that is as space-establishment as they come. He joined NASA right after getting his engineering master’s at New Mexico State University in 1986, and worked his way up over 16 years to become deputy operations manager for the shuttle. He jumped to Boeing in 2002, and from 2008 to 2011 rose to be program manager for its shuttle effort. (Boeing absorbed Rockwell in 1996, inheriting the latter company’s contract to build the shuttle.)
But Mulholland doffs the corporate mask with relish to play space-nut-in-chief. At the end of an interview that dwells on the intricacies of systems integration and performance parameters, he jokes: “Humans are going to need another place to live eventually. Single-planet species don’t survive. Just ask the dinosaurs.”