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 3 of 5)
On the other hand, Mulholland stresses that “our focus has been on bringing in mature but innovative approaches,” “mature” meaning those that have been proven over years of manned missions. Mulholland’s response to SpaceX’s latest successes is subtle. “The wonderful thing about cargo is that you can learn as you go,” he says. “If you have an accident, you have lost a lot of money but not crew.” Part of Boeing’s long experience in spaceflight includes, as a partner in United Space Alliance, a return to flight after the loss of a crew.
Ferguson, who does not mind combining his primary job as crew chief with a side job as attack dog, is more to the point. “Manned spaceflight is an unforgiving business, and SpaceX might build up the credibility for it in a dozen years or so,” the former shuttlenaut says. SpaceX founder Elon Musk “is a great guy who has done some fantastic things, but the time for self-congratulation is after everyone is back safe on the ground.”
In the tight-knit space industry, several members feel confident that Mulholland could lead his company to snatch the commercial crew prize. One, James Muncy, a D.C.-based enthusiast who heads both the Space Frontier Foundation and the Polispace Consultancy, says: “SpaceX is like Boeing was under Bill Boeing 90 years ago. But you are seeing a culture inside the CST‑100 that is very different from the rest of Boeing. The fact that Boeing has its own money at stake makes it very different than a cost-plus contract.”
More support comes from Space Adventures, the highly entrepreneurial company best known for sending multi-millionaires for a holiday on the space station via Russia. Space Adventures might seem like a natural fit with SpaceX, but it partnered with the CST-100 program instead when the commercial crew quest was just getting started in 2010. “Boeing has a tremendous space heritage and the CST-100 is a fantastic system,” says company president Tom Shelley.
He does not promise that a ride aboard the CST-100 will be cheaper than the current Soyuz ticket, which costs about $70 million per seat. But the training time would be slashed from four months to two, Shelley says, in part because space tourists will no longer need to learn Russian or train in Russia. “That’s a huge factor for our clients,” he says.
But the surest sign that Boeing means business with its commercial crew efforts comes from NASA itself. In the agency’s most recent financing round, announced in August 2012, the CST-100 topped all recipients with $460 million. SpaceX’s Dragon was close behind with $440 million, while Sierra Nevada received $212.5 million—setting up a two-horse race with a third contender still on the track in case one of the leaders breaks a leg.
Boeing anticipates training and providing a crew of two for the initial Crewed Flight Test, which could occur as early as 2016. (SpaceX also will train its crew, but hasn’t decided whether they will be NASA or SpaceX astronauts.) NASA may choose to participate in the mission, so the crew may be a mix of Boeing and NASA astronauts. The first crew services flight to the station will be made in late 2017, and the crew likely will be NASA astronauts trained by Boeing. I ask Ferguson how he feels about flying the CST-100. “I think it would be really cool to be the first non-government astronaut” in orbit, he says.
Boeing’s space (and military) heritage brings plenty to bear on the consumer crew contest, both Mulholland and Ferguson say. The company is thick with engineers who know intimately how to “design out all that stuff we always complained about,” in Ferguson’s words. That would include, for instance, the 1,100 switches in NASA’s over-designed shuttle that bedeviled astronauts for three decades.