KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — Following closely on the heels of NASA’s stunning success with the flawless maiden test flight of the Orion crew module on Dec. 5, 2014, aimed at sending Americans back into deep space for the first time in over four decades, momentum is building rapidly for NASA’s concurrent commercial crew program (CCP) to send Americans back into low-Earth orbit for the first time in over three years.
America is now a major step closer to restoring our capability to indigenously launching American astronauts back to the high frontier from American soil following the groundbreaking announcement today, Dec. 10, that NASA and Boeing have set the design and approved the Ground Segment Critical Design Review milestones of the company’s commercial CST-100 “space taxi” that will ferry our astronauts to the space station in 2017.
Both pillars of NASA’s multi-pronged human spaceflight strategy encompassing low-Earth orbit (LEO) and beyond-Earth orbit (BEO) crewed flights have kicked into high gear—just days apart.
The CCP program is the fastest and cheapest way to get America back to space with American rocketry as quickly and safely as feasible.
On Sept. 16, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that Boeing and Space were both awarded contracts under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative, designed to return human spaceflight launches to the United States and end our sole source reliance on Russia.
“From day one, the Obama Administration made clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space,” Bolden told reporters during a briefing at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Boeing was awarded a contract worth $4.2 billion to build the CST-100 spacecraft and launch between one and six flights atop a man-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
The unseemly gap in the U.S. ability to launch people into space began in July 2011, following the politically forced shutdown of the space shuttle program following the touchdown of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on the STS-135 mission.
Boeing is targeting early 2017 for the first unmanned orbital test flight of the CST-100 and summer 2017 for the first manned flight.
“The first manned test flight could happen by the end of summer 2017 with a two person crew,” Chris Ferguson, commander of NASA’s final shuttle flight and now director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations, recently told AmericaSpace in an exclusive one-on-one interview about Boeing’s human spaceflight efforts.
NASA and Boeing have just completed a three-week-long review of Boeing’s plans for constructing and processing the CST-100 crew and service modules in Florida at KSC inside an old space shuttle hangar known as OPF-3 that had sat idle since STS-135 but has now been completely refurbished with funding from Space Florida.
The former OPF-3 facility has been renamed the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility and was recently visited by this writer and several AmericaSpace colleagues.
As part of the CCtCAP phase, NASA took a comprehensive look at all of Boeing’s ground-based system designs planned for the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility and more during the Ground Segment Critical Design Review sessions.
NASA also reviewed Boeing’s plans to build a CST-100 mission control center nearby as a hub of all the engineering operations to design, build, and operate the astronaut transportation vehicle.
“Along with facility designs, we looked at the operation processes,” said Dave Allega, a lead in the Ground and Mission Operations Office of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in a NASA statement.
“How would they be using those facilities? What is the flow? How are they going to build up their new spacecraft, get it ready to fly, put it on the launch vehicle and then operate it once it is there? Then, after landing, how will they go recover it and turn it around to go and do it again?”
Participating in the review were several dozen engineers on numerous ground systems, various safety, health, and human performance experts, as well as astronauts who may one day fly the CST-100.
They looked at how Boeing would test flight hardware and assemble and integrate its spacecraft to the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. They even looked at the equipment that would move the integrated stack to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41, according to a NASA description.
At the conclusion of the wide ranging discussion, NASA approved Boeing’s plans which marks the successful completion of the firm’s second CCtCAP milestone in the span of less than two weeks.
“This is an important step towards achieving human-rated certification,” said Boeing Commercial Crew Program Manager John Mulholland. “This review provided an in-depth assessment of our training, facilities, operations and our flight processes.”
Boeing can now start construction on the spacecraft hardware, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) can start on the launch vehicle adaptor and continue human rating certification of the Atlas V rocket.
“This critical design review was validation to the NASA team that all of Boeing’s ground segment plans are in place and are starting to match up to our certification requirements,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
“This is a really good sign that we’re marching at a good pace to reach our goal of certifying the system to fly to the space station.”
The CST-100 is designed to carry a mix of cargo and up to seven crew members to the ISS. Most likely it will fly with either four or five astronauts.
“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 explained.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates.
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