They say there is no substitute for experience, and when it comes to spaceflight there are few in the world that can match the proven expertise and decades of experience that Boeing brings to the table. Three companies are currently developing spacecraft to fill the void left by the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011, and the Crew Space Transportation-100 spacecraft (or CST-100 for short) is Boeing’s answer to fill that void, leveraging their five decades of human spaceflight experience to provide the United States with affordable, reliable, and regular access to the International Space Station (ISS).
It was only a few weeks ago that SpaceX unveiled their Dragon V2 test article to the world with a rock-star like presentation, introducing a vehicle which itself builds on Boeing’s experience in support of NASA’s Apollo, Space Shuttle, and ISS programs. Boeing has remained rather low-key in the development of their spacecraft, or “space taxi” as they refer to it, which makes sense because that is exactly what it is. However, low-key is not to be confused with no progress. Boeing has been hard at work developing the vehicle they hope NASA will choose as a transport for their ISS crews, and last week AmericaSpace was invited to meet with Boeing in their CST-100 processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for an update on the company’s progress as they compete against SpaceX and Sierra Nevada for a multi-billion dollar NASA contract for ISS crew transport in the coming years.
“The CST-100 is a cheap, cost effective vehicle that doesn’t need to be luxurious because it only needs to hold people for 48 hours. It’s a simple ride up to and back from space,” said former astronaut and commander of the last space shuttle mission Chris Ferguson, who now serves as Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing. “Our focus right now is making sure we build the vehicle the right way.”
The CST-100, which Boeing is developing in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability agreement (CCiCap), will be capable of ferrying a crew of up to seven astronauts to and from the ISS and other low-Earth orbit destinations. NASA only requires seating for four, but in a recent interview with AmericaSpace Ferguson said he expects crews of five to fly. The vehicle will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just a few miles from its processing facility, and will cruise autonomously on a six to eight hour trip to the $100 billion orbiting ISS. The astronauts will not need to fly the vehicle themselves at all, and will literally be along for the ride in all aspects of the flight. They will, however, be able to take manual control of the CST-100 at any time, just in case.
“We [Boeing] have a basic level of training we provide that will give the operator, a pilot, the knowledge that they need to operate the spaceship, which is mostly autonomous,” said Ferguson. “They will have the ability to get to the ISS and back, as well as the ability to deal with failures and the ability to take manual control if necessary. NASA wants a single piloted vehicle, so we will train the pilot to whatever level of proficiency they need, and if NASA wants us to train someone else to a pilot level of proficiency then we will be happy to do that. That being said we have factored into our design the ability for a copilot, and train them perhaps to the same level of proficiency as the pilot. They would sit beside the pilot and do all of those types of crew resource management (CRM) types of things that NASA instilled in us shuttle astronauts over the years.”
The spacecraft interior is much more user-friendly than vehicles that came before, no more hundreds (if not thousands) of switches on nearly every wall; the CST-100 has a control panel that spans not more than three feet wide. Its look and feel is very user-focused, featuring therapeutic Boeing LED Sky Lighting technology similar to that found in the company’s 787 Dreamliner. A blue hue creates a sky effect and makes the capsule appear and feel roomier, something any astronaut will tell you is always desired (spaceflight is not for the claustrophobic). The interior also boasts tablet technology for crew interfaces, which completely eliminates any need for bulky manuals, while wireless internet will support communications and ISS docking operations.
“One of the great things with the technology we have at Boeing is the ability to rapid prototype the interior, and as designs get updated we’re able to bring in new design concepts,” said Boeing CST-100 engineer Tony Castilleja. “We get the engineers in here and get the astronauts in here every six months to provide that reach and visibility. Do they feel comfortable? Is there anything we need to tweak as we move forward? It really builds trust with them. It’s almost like buying a car, but you’re a part of the design process in that vehicle.”
“We brought our commercial airliner feel into the CST-100, and so you see this merging … it’s almost like history repeating itself, from commercial airlines to commercial spaceflight,” adds Castilleja. “We’re bringing that Boeing element into spaceflight and wanted to create an interior that makes the spacecraft feel a little bit bigger.”
If NASA selects Boeing to continue with CST-100 development in the second phase of a two-phased Commercial Crew Program effort this summer, known as Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), then Boeing would immediately move their operations to the Kennedy Space Center to manufacture, assemble, and test the actual CST-100 flight article.
Boeing, in partnership with Space Florida, is already leasing the former space shuttle Orbiter Processing Facility Bay-3 to do this, modernizing the facility (now known as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, or C3PF) to provide an environment for efficient production, testing, and operations for the CST-100 similar to Boeing’s satellite, space launch vehicle, and commercial airplane production programs.
“We’re transitioning this facility into a world class manufacturing facility,” said Boeing’s CST-100 Program Manager John Mulholland. “With a 50,000 square foot processing facility it’s going to allow us to process up to six CST-100’s at a time.”
The hangar facility has more than enough room to support processing of multiple CST-100’s simultaneously, and the adjoining sections of the building are well-suited to process other systems such as engines and thrusters before they are integrated into the main spacecraft. If Boeing advances with the CCP this summer, it would also mean the addition of 300-500 new jobs to support CST-100 processing.
“This facility will become point and center, we’ll be developing the test articles here and then starting the manufacturing for full services in 2017,” said Castilleja as we sat onboard his spacecraft prototype. “This is where all the pieces and parts will come in, and we’ll then build everything right here. One side of the building is for processing the service modules, and the other side of the facility is for processing the crew modules. We’ll then ship out to the Atlas launch pad integration facility and off we go.”
Since 2010 NASA has given $1.5 billion to foster the development of a commercial crew spaceflight capability, and between the three companies competing for the ultimate contract Boeing has received the biggest chunk of change ($600 million total so far). The space agency has expressed its wishes to award commercial crew contracts to at least two companies, even as recently as today, but that will be dependent on whether or not Congress provides adequate funding.
NASA is expected to announce the winners of their Commercial Crew Program by September, which will pave the way to the final lap toward launching U.S. astronauts from American soil once more by 2017.
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