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.

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)
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Alicia Evans grew up in Southern California dreaming of being an astronaut. The space bug bit her when she was five, she says, and has not let go some 30 years later. She recently submitted a second job application to NASA, joining some 6,300 would-be space voyagers vying for a maximum of 15 spots in the next astronaut class (eight were chosen). Asked whether she would volunteer for the first privately run human mission to Mars, the one whose crew (if it happens) will not return to Earth, she thinks for a moment. “I would consider it,” she replies.

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Kavya Manyapu grew up in India also dreaming of becoming an astronaut. When she was three, she started watching space shuttle launches and dockings on TV with her father, an information technology specialist. When Kavya was 16 he moved the family to the United States to bring her closer to NASA’s front door. Since then, she has earned engineering degrees from Georgia Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a “highly qualified” rating for her astronaut application.

Today, the two young women work a few cubicles apart at Boeing Space and Defense Systems’ offices in Houston. They are among the 350-some employees designing the CST-100, the aerospace giant’s entrant in NASA’s competition for a privately built successor to the shuttle that will carry crews to the International Space Station on U.S.-built hardware, rather than the Russian Soyuz capsule NASA has been relying on since the shuttle retired. Evans is overseeing the environmental testing of a CST-100 prototype to be built next year, organizing the minutiae of a propulsion system test firing in New Mexico, and scheduling a heat exchange simulation in a vacuum chamber at Boeing’s huge test facility in El Segundo, California. Manyapu is a flight test engineer and a participant in the Mars Society research project to prepare humans for a trip to Mars.

There is absolutely nothing special about the CST-100 design center externally—several floors of featureless work stations in a faceless low-rise glass office complex on Houston’s southeastern outskirts. But Evans and Manyapu bring the invisible fire of their life’s ambition to work every day. It sits close beside them as they work methodically through the morning’s spreadsheets and emails. “Even if I don’t get to be an astronaut, I get to work for Boeing on a human spaceflight vehicle that a friend or colleague might fly on,” Evans reflects. “How awesome is that?”

Evans and Manyapu’s boss, CST-100 project manager John Mulholland, and the corporate hierarchy above him are counting on the young engineers’ passion to pull Boeing through a challenge it has not quite faced before. The company, as a visitor hears within five minutes of entering the building, has ample experience putting men and women into space. Boeing or companies that are now part of it, like McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International, have been in the thick of every manned program from Mercury to the shuttle to the space station, for which Boeing is the prime contractor.

But all those programs ran according to the traditional script: cost-plus budgeting, in which every widget and layer of redundancy any administrator or relevant Congressman could think of was built in, the price being Uncle Sam’s problem. Boeing manager and former astronaut Chris Ferguson calculates that the shuttle cost taxpayers from $35 to $42 billion just in the design work leading up to its first flight. After commanding the last shuttle mission, in December 2011, Ferguson came to work for Mulholland as the CST‑100’s director of crew and mission operations—and informal guru to the space-struck junior staff. NASA’s successor human-flight program, Constellation, was scrapped in 2010 as unaffordable.

The price tag on the new Crew Space Transportation vehicle, as NASA has formally designated CST-100 and its competitors, will be “more than an order of magnitude cheaper,” Ferguson promises. So far NASA has paid about $600 million to Boeing to produce a CST-100 capsule, which is now approaching its “critical design review”—the rigorous series of test bangs, rattles, and blasts that Alicia Evans and others will conduct on the prototype before construction of the operational vehicle can begin. The company itself has co-invested an undisclosed sum.

Part of the projected savings comes from shrinking the size and scope of the vehicle. With a cone-like Crew Module fastened to its squat, cylindrical Service Module, the CST-100 is 16.5 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter. Its intended payload capacity is a mere 2,800 pounds, enough to carry seven astronauts and the equipment they need to survive a 24-hour journey to the space station. By contrast, the shuttle typically carried 50,000 pounds. In the future, most of that bulk will be toted by a separate commercial cargo vehicle.

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.”

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