Boeing is one of the pillars of the United States’ aerospace industry and for the three decades that the space shuttle roared to orbit it was an integral part of the space plane’s story. Now that the shuttle era is over the company is working to bridge the gap between the shuttle program and NASA’s exploration efforts.
For Boeing, it is the effort to return United States to the business of returning astronauts to orbit while the space agency works to send astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit for the first time in more than 40 years.
AmericaSpace sat down with Brooke Padden a structural engineer with Boeing’s Space Exploration division. Padden worked on the shuttle program and now she is working on Boeing’s commercial crew program. Boeing’s commercial spacecraft is the Crew Space Transportation or the CST-100 as it is more commonly known.
AmericaSpace: Good morning Brooke, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today.
Padden: “Thanks, I really appreciate the opportunity.”
AmericaSpace: Brooke, what did you do while you worked on shuttle?
Padden: “I started in the airframe engineering group – that was a combination of the airframe structure, thermal protection system and thermal control system passive, that’s the internal blankets. Then I transferred over to solid rocket motor mechanical systems engineering and I worked there for six years. After we lost Columbia, I was pulled back to the work reconstruction for the structures and TPS systems and then I transitioned over to Boeing working thermal protection for Boeing and then ended the program as the deputy subsystem manager for the reinforced carbon-carbon wing leading edge subsystem.”
AmericaSpace: “How long total did you spend with shuttle?”
Padden: “Sixteen years.”
AmericaSpace: Wow! When did you begin work on Boeing’s commercial crew efforts?
Padden: “I’m right in the middle of transitioning to commercial right now; I have been assigned to work in the passive thermal protection system, designing all of the internal blankets for the CST-100.”
AmericaSpace: “Are there a lot of similarities between what you did on shuttle and are now doing with the CST-100?
Padden: “Yes, the type of blankets that we’re using on the new vehicle are very similar to systems that were used on the orbiters.”
AmericaSpace: What was it like transitioning from the shuttle program to the CST-100?
Padden: “I think everybody out here had thoughts and concerns from the visit of President Obama when he told us he supported the shuttle program, then once he was elected that didn’t happen. I don’t think the transition was well-defined from that perspective and so it left a lot of people wondering and curious as to what the future held for the human space flight program. I’m tremendously excited about being on the CST-100. I think Boeing has an excellent opportunity of being the next manned vehicle and I think that the potential is tremendous.”
AmericaSpace: The CST-100 has only recently begun being worked on, what are you currently working on in terms of this new spacecraft?
Padden: “The first assignment that they have given us is to have the layout of all the tile blankets for the crew module and the service module as well as developing the specification for the fabrication of those blankets. We have a timeline that we have to adhere to and it looks like by the middle of next year we will have to have all the drawings and the materials for those blankets completed.”
AmericaSpace: In terms of hours, what is your day like now? Do you work 40 hours? More? Less?
Padden: “You kind of are working 24/7 really because, as an engineer, you’re constantly thinking about decisions you made. Did I cut that plane in the right place? Is this the best way to make this? It might look good on a model but can we fabricate it? So you’re always thinking about this. Luckily, our facilities are always open to us, as with any deadline you end up crunching at the end and we do whatever it takes to do things right.”
AmericaSpace: Were there any surprises or challenges from moving from a space plane design toward a capsule-based system?
Padden: “The thing that threw me off the most an if you look at all the proposed vehicles, none of them are designed for longevity as the shuttles were (each orbiter was designed to fly 100 missions) to the best of my knowledge, most of the new spacecraft being built will only be used for five missions. So, what surprised me personally was how everything is disposable.”
AmericaSpace: To that, what do you miss most about the space shuttle?
Padden: “Have you ever been on an orbiter?”
AmericaSpace: Yes, twice.
Padden: “Whenever someone works on an orbiter, they leave a small piece of themselves behind. It’s personal. It’s the teams that work together on those vehicles. After the Columbia accident, we were only left with three vehicles and they were processed in the same bays every time (NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facilities or OPFs). Because of this you got to know the team – through the people. You were friends, you watched their kids grow up, go to college, graduate college, go off and get married and some of them come out here and work. The vehicle itself became more than just an inanimate object, it became a living thing and I will tell you that as I watched each one of these vehicles roll out of here to go to their final destination it’s tremendously sad when you walk into the OPF because the life force – is no longer there.”
Boeing is one of three companies selected under NASA’s Commercial Crew integrated Capability or CCiCap (the other two being Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation). Both Boeing and Sierra Nevada have tapped United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V launch vehicle as the rocket of choice to send their spacecraft to orbit. SpaceX will rely on its Falcon 9 rocket.
This is the first segment of a two-part discussion with Padden. Check back tomorrow for the second half of this interview.