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.”
With the imagineering phase of design finished and a test flight not likely until 2015, this is a particularly hard time to maintain enthusiasm in the chancy multi-year project. But space engineers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s rich, are different from the rest of us. They understand that humankind’s ascent to the stars is a long march, and they are content to be humble soldiers in that effort. At least that is what they like to say. Everyone at CST HQ seems to agree that the chance to contribute to a brand-new flight system, one that will carry real astronauts no less, is akin to a divine gift. “In a way, it’s a shame that NASA had to abandon Constellation and its own program,” Mulholland says. “But that’s made it such an exciting time for people to get into aerospace.”
Though Alicia Evans has not launched for Mars yet, late last year she did quit her native southern California for Houston. She spent most of her previous 11 years with Boeing at El Segundo, a stone’s throw from the beach (and not far from SpaceX’s headquarters, in Hawthorne). There may be yet another move next July, when the CST-100 program relocates to Cape Canaveral, Florida. But “the opportunity to work on a crewed vehicle was too good to pass up,” she explains. “El Segundo does not have the passion we have here.”
That is just what Boeing wants to hear.
Craig Mellow is a freelance journalist in Staten Island, New York.