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 4 of 5)
But institutional memory both before and beyond the shuttle is at work in Houston today. Mulholland and his team metaphorically rummaged through Boeing’s immense technology closets to dust off pieces of hardware that otherwise might not fly another day to put aboard the CST-100. Mulholland says that the new vessel will use flight computers originally designed for the unmanned X-37B spaceplane, which Boeing built for the Air Force in the latter half of the last decade (see “Space Shuttle Jr.,” Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010). The propulsion system for the capsule was scavenged from ground-based missile defense technology. The base heat shield that will protect Boeing’s astronauts on reentry is an update of one used in Apollo. The CST-100’s interior lighting is copied from the 787 Dreamliner commercial jet. And so on.
Mulholland spins even Boeing’s famous problems with the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries as a plus for CST-100 development (the capsule will use a different type of lithium-ion battery). Boeing space engineers crossed divisional lines to consult with civil aviation colleagues on the battery conundrum, and brought back valuable insight on how to prevent similar snafus with the commercial crew vehicle. “You learn as much from those kind of situations as you do from clean-sheet engineering,” he says. “A number of the improvements Boeing made have already been incorporated into our system.”
Nearly as important as Boeing’s in-house experience, its managers say, are the relationships the company has built up with suppliers and collaborators—other pillars of the aerospace industrial establishment—over the years. The computer system that will pass from the X-37B to the CST-100, for instance, was built by defense giant General Dynamics. The propulsion system borrowed from missile defense originated with Pratt & Whitney.
For the CST-100 program, the critical third-party relationship is with United Launch Alliance, whose Atlas V rocket will lift the crew capsule clear of Earth’s atmosphere. Or one should say not-quite-third-party relationship. ULA itself is a joint venture formed in 2005 between Boeing and its arch-rival in defense contracting, Lockheed Martin. CST-100ers view it as an external partner, though. “One of the factors that makes this project about the hardest thing in the world is bringing together three big organizations: Boeing, ULA, and NASA,” Ferguson says. “NASA is very interested in how we are going to work with ULA.”
The trade-off for the complication of teaming with ULA is that the Atlas V boasts a long and nearly flawless track record, some 40 successful satellite launches since 2002. (Before ULA’s formation, Lockheed operated it solo.) That gives Boeing execs one more talking point for their argument that their hands are safer than SpaceX’s, which, true to maverick form, is launching its commercial crew entry on its own Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 has been through five launches, all successful. Ferguson says that it might take a dozen launches to “start to establish some credibility.”
In all its storied history, one thing Boeing has never done is actually operate a spaceflight—training astronauts and running mission control. In the past, contractors would deliver the hardware and NASA would handle the flights. If Boeing wins the commercial crew derby, it will take over that job. That’s where Chris Ferguson comes in.
Ferguson, now 52, adds a dash of bona fide astronaut stuff to a project otherwise dominated by gearheads and bean counters. After studying engineering at Drexel University and the Naval Postgraduate School, he spent 12 years as a Topgun and test pilot, landing Grumman F-14 Tomcats on aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. He resigned from the Navy to join NASA in 1998, and made the first of his three shuttle flights aboard Atlantis in 2006. He makes no bones about being a reluctant recruit to the corporate sector, or his disappointment in watching a confederacy of bureaucratic and political dunces (as ex-astronauts tend to see it) kill off the Constellation program. “I liked my old job better,” he says, “but my old job doesn’t exist anymore.”
Now he energetically carries the CST-100 flag and pushes the company’s engineers to plan for commercial spaceflight from a pilot’s perspective. For instance, until he came on board, no one had thought very much about flight simulators. “Simulation is the lifeblood of the astronaut,” Ferguson says. “If you want to test a new airplane, you take it out and fly it. You can’t do that with space.”