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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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.

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.

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