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Boeing’s commercial Crew Space Transportation spacecraft, known as the CST-100, may replace Russia’s Soyuz to become the next spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station. An illustration shows how the CST-100 might dock at one of the station’s ports. (Boeing)

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.

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.”

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.

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