KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — A two-person crew comprising “one NASA astronaut and one Boeing test pilot will fly aboard the first orbital test flight of our commercial CST-100 manned capsule in 2017.” Chris Ferguson, commander of NASA’s final shuttle flight and now director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations, told AmericaSpace in an exclusive one-on-one interview about Boeing’s human spaceflight efforts to build a private and efficient “space taxi” for American astronaut crews.
“The first manned test flight could happen by the end of summer 2017 with a two person crew,” Ferguson told me during a detailed conversation about Boeing’s push to restore an indigenous U.S. capacity for launching our astronauts to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).
The CST-100 is Boeing’s entry into NASA’s Commercial Crew program aimed at fostering the development of a next-generation crewed vehicle to replace the space shuttle after its forced retirement following wheel stop in July 2011. Three-time space flying veteran Chris Ferguson commanded the last shuttle flight, STS-135.
Since that day, no American astronauts have launched to space from American soil on American rockets seated inside American spaceships.
They have been totally dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for tickets to space and back—at a cost of over $70 million per seat under the latest contract with Roscosmos.
Boeing’s philosophy is to make the CST-100 a commercial endeavor, as simple and cost effective as possible to kick start U.S. human spaceflight efforts as soon as possible—especially given the meager Commercial Crew budgets approved by a reluctant Congress.
“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,” Ferguson emphasized.
I asked Ferguson: “Who will fly on the maiden CST-100 orbital test flight? Will it be a mixed NASA/Boeing astronaut crew?”
“From the latest NASA contracts regarding the test flight, NASA apparently wants to fly one of their astronauts aboard. So our assumption now is that there it will be one Boeing test pilot and one NASA astronaut,” Ferguson said.
“A year ago, NASA officials specifically told me that no NASA astronauts would be allowed to fly on the first test mission until the spaceship was basically proven to be flight worthy.”
“That’s a clear change from NASA’s earlier plan calling strictly for two company test pilots, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s a change and the premise we are now operating under,” Ferguson confirmed.
“Who will pick the crew?”
“Boeing will pick the test pilot. NASA will pick the astronaut.”
“When will Boeing and NASA select the crew? Are we getting close to selection time?”
“The announcement of who is on the crew will come closer to when they are ready to start training for the flight.”
“It’s prudent to wait like NASA did [previously] because sometimes people develop health problems. It’s much easier to wait until later and put someone on a crew, rather than announce it [too] early and have things move and change around.”
“Where will Boeing look for a qualified test pilot?”
“Boeing will reach out to see who out there is qualified and wants to do this.”
“The smartest thing would be to pick an old NASA astronaut!”
“So how about you? Would you like to do it?” I quickly inquired.
“I don’t know. Sure I’d like to go to space again, who wouldn’t like to go to space,” Ferguson mused, as we chuckled.
“But it’s a business for young, steely eyed missile men,” he replied, taking himself out of the running. … Maybe …
“I think we could pry someone out of NASA and convince them to work for Boeing to fly a test flight. I wouldn’t be surprised if the phone starts ringing here in the next few months looking for someone.”
“I imagine you’d have at least 20 or 30 quick volunteers!”
“Yes, and Bob Cabana [Kennedy Space Center (KSC) director and former shuttle commander] is one of them. He’s made that very public, although he knows it couldn’t possibly happen!”
“So we are thinking about the crew.”
Boeing’s strategy for the first manned orbital flight test is exciting and ambitious and is sure to attract numerous applicants.
“We may go all the way to the space station. We want to dock and maybe spend a couple weeks there.”
“SpaceX did it [as well as Orbital Sciences for their first unmanned cargo dockings]. So we think we can too.”
“The question is can we make the owners of the space station comfortable with what we are doing. That’s what it really comes down to.”
“But our focus right now is making sure we build the vehicle the right way,” Ferguson said.
Boeing plans to assemble and manufacture the CST-100 crew and service modules in Florida at KSC inside an old space shuttle hangar now sitting idle and undergoing refurbishment with funding from Space Florida.
“The CST-100 will be manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center inside a former shuttle hanger known as Orbiter Processing Facility 3, or OPF-3, which is now [transformed into] a Boeing processing facility,” Ferguson told me.
Boeing will assume the lease to OPF-3 from Space Florida by late June 2014 and the project will bring jobs back to KSC.
“Over 300 people will be employed.”
Boeing is one of three American aerospace firms vying to restore America’s capability to fly astronauts to the space station by late 2017, using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in a public/private partnership.
The other competitors are the SpaceX Dragon and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser. The next round of commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA around late summer.
The CST-100 is being designed at Boeing’s Houston Product Support Center in Texas and is comprised of a crew module (CM) and service module (SM).
The combined CM/SM stands some 5.03 meters (16.5 feet) high. The capsule itself is 4.56 meters (175 inches) in diameter.
The reusable capsule will launch atop a man rated United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and carry a mix of cargo and astronauts to the ISS. It must meet NASA’s stringent safety and reliability standards.
“What is the crew size that can fly aboard CST-100?”
“The crew size will be five. We can go to seven if we have to. But NASA only wants four. Their requirement says four. We sell NASA the seats,” said Ferguson.
“So will you carry some cargo up too if you aren’t bringing up seven crewmembers?”
“Yes. We will take up come cargo. It’s really up to what NASA wants and decides. If they want some cargo in addition to people.”
“So in place of the astronauts seats would you have some type of storage lockers or compartments?”
“Yes, you could. Although that’s not part of what we are designed to or for. So even if we carry five crewmembers we will also carry some cargo.”
Therefore, the ISS crew size will increase to at least seven depending on how many seats NASA procures.
All three companies currently receiving funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program are making excellent progress in achieving the agency’s mandated milestones in the current contract period known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiative (CCiCAP).
The direction and look of America’s future crewed spaceship(s) for ISS operations will become clearer later this year, when NASA down selects to one or more vehicles in the next round of funding dubbed CCtCAP.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments.
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