Less than a year since winning a $4.2 billion slice of the $6.8 billion Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract—the current phase of NASA’s effort to return U.S. astronauts to space, aboard a U.S.-built vehicle, and from U.S. soil—Boeing has taken a significant forward step as it prepares its CST-100 spacecraft for an initial unpiloted “shakedown” voyage in April 2017, then a crewed test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in July 2017. This will be followed by the first contracted long-duration crew exchange mission, by either Boeing’s CST-100 or SpaceX’s Dragon V-2, at some stage after November 2017, on the eagerly awaited “U.S. Crew Vehicle-1” or “USCV-1.” In anticipation of Commercial Crew operations, the first two domes for CST-100’s Structural Test Article (STA) have been delivered to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, where they will be transferred to the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) Bay 3 for integration.
According to a NASA blog, posted Monday, 27 July, the twin domes will form the pressurized “shell” of the STA, which is not itself intended to fly with a human crew, but which is expected to yield significant insights into the manufacturing and processing methods for flight-ready CST-100 vehicles. The STA will be employed “to determine the effectiveness of the design and prove its escape system during a pad abort test,” it was explained. “The ability to abort from an emergency and safely carry crew members out of harm’s way is a critical element for NASA’s next generation of crew spacecraft.” In recent weeks, the main structure of the STA was friction-stir-welded into a single upper and lower hull, then machined to its final thickness. Throughout the second half of 2015, it will be outfitted with critical components and systems for an expansive testing program.
The majority of this work will be performed within OPF Bay 3—now known as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF)—which is situated to the northwest of the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and just across the street from its sisters, OPF Bays 1 and 2. This trio of processing facilities were employed at various stages throughout the 30-year space shuttle era to process Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour for their 135 historic missions. The predecessor of today’s OPF Bay 3 was activated in 1987 as the Orbiter Maintenance and Refurbishment Facility (OMRF), initially for non-hazardous and off-line processing of the shuttles. Its first client was Columbia, the queen of the fleet, which underwent low-key attention in the OMRF from September 1987 through July 1988, prior to moving into the fully equipped OPF Bay 2 to commence preparations for her first post-Challenger mission, STS-28.
Then, from 1989 through 1991, NASA implemented an extensive upgrade program to convert the OMRF into a third OPF bay, with about $46 million-worth of Ground Support Equipment (GSE) and work platforms transferred from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.—which might originally have supported a series of polar-orbiting shuttle flights from the West Coast in the pre-Challenger era—to the Cape. During this period, the facility was briefly occupied by Discovery in mid-1989, during the interval between her STS-29 and STS-33 missions, and again by Columbia for a handful of days in August 1991. With the “pooling” of other GSE across the three facilities, the conversion of the OMRF to OPF Bay 3 was accomplished for just $85 million, considerably lower than the $170 million expected to complete the task. When finished, OPF Bay 3 measured 197 feet (60 meters) in length, 150 feet (46 meters) wide, and 95 feet (29 meters) high, with adjacent areas for logistics and flight hardware storage.
Activated in September 1991, its first formal processing occupant was Discovery, fresh from her STS-48 mission to deploy NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS). The orbiter spent 77 days in the new bay, being readied for her STS-42 International Microgravity Laboratory (IML)-1 research flight in January 1992. OPF Bay 3 subsequently supported Columbia and Endeavour, before being devoted chiefly to Discovery from the fall of 1992 through early 1994. It was later used almost exclusively by Atlantis and Endeavour from May 1994 through August 1997—punctuated on a couple of occasions, when it provided storage for orbiters newly returned or about to depart for major modification periods—and by all four shuttles into the present millennium. Poignantly, Columbia occupied OPF Bay 3 in the summer of 2002, just months before her ill-fated STS-107 mission. Following the resumption of flights in the summer of 2005, OPF Bay 3 was pivotal in processing the final voyages of the Space Shuttle Program, finally witnessing the rollover of Discovery to the VAB in September 2010 for stacking onto her External Tank (ET) and Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) for her swansong, the STS-133 mission to the ISS.
A year later, in October 2011, NASA signed a 15-year use permit with Space Florida, under which OPF Bay 3—together with the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility and Processing Control Center—were retasked for Boeing’s CST-100 program and subsequently renamed as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF). It was anticipated that the move would create up to 550 aerospace-related jobs along the Space Coast and was described as “the latest step … as the center transitions from a historically government-only launch complex to a multi-user spaceport.” At the same time, Boeing selected Florida for its Commercial Crew headquarters, citing not only “our NASA customer,” but also the “outstanding facilities and … experienced space workforce.” In July 2015, that transition is bearing fruit, with the maiden voyage of the CST-100 hopefully less than two years into the future. However, as cautioned in a recent article by AmericaSpace’s Jim Hillhouse, proposed congressional cuts to the Commercial Crew endeavor could render 2017 an increasingly unrealistic goal.
Last summer, on time and on-budget, Boeing concluded the final two milestones of its $460 million Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA, passing the Phase Two Spacecraft Safety Review and the Critical Design Review (CDR) of its integrated systems for the CST-100. Receipt of the CCiCap contract came after initial funding under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The interior of the conical CST-100 capsule features therapeutic Boeing LED Sky Lighting technology—not dissimilar to that seen aboard Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner—and measures 15 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter at its base, making it somewhat larger than the Apollo Command Module (CM). It has the capacity to transport up to seven astronauts into orbit, can remain aloft for up to 210 days and is reusable for up to ten discrete missions. Under normal circumstances, it will be lofted atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. As described in a recent article by AmericaSpace’s Mike Killian, construction of the 200-foot-tall (60-meter) Crew Access Tower at the SLC-41 site is well underway.
Last September, Boeing secured a slice of the CCtCap “pie,” worth up to $4.2 billion, for the continued development of the CST-100. Under the terms of the contract, Boeing and SpaceX were required to fly at least one crewed test flight, with at least one NASA astronaut aboard, to verify that the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft can launch, maneuver in orbit and dock with the ISS. Successful completion of these milestones would then open the gates for between two and six dedicated crew rotation missions to the space station.
Earlier this year, John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager of Boeing Space Exploration, explained that the unpiloted CST-100 test flight would be launched atop ULA’s 74th Atlas V mission, after which the inaugural crewed mission would take place atop the 80th Atlas V, in the early-to-mid-2017 timeframe. Asked about the NASA/industry crew composition of the missions, he explained that having a Boeing test pilot aboard would be in keeping with the company’s flight test heritage. More recently, in July 2015, NASA assigned veteran spacefarers Eric Boe, Suni Williams, Doug Hurley, and Bob Behnken—the latter of whom had just stepped down from his previous post as Chief of the Astronaut Office—to begin training for Commercial Crew flights. Also in recent weeks, Boeing received the first of up to six orders to execute a crew-rotation mission of CST-100 to the space station.
Of course, flying these missions requires an active, operational docking interface, and NASA intended to deliver a pair of International Docking Adapters (IDAs) aboard SpaceX’s CRS-7 and CRS-9 Dragon cargo missions. The IDA-1 mechanism—which was to have been attached to Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 on the forward face of the station’s Harmony node—would have been the primary Commercial Crew interface, but was lost in a launch failure on 28 June. The IDA-2 adapter will now assume the primary role, with IDA-3 to be assembled from spare parts and launched at a later date for installation onto the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 on Harmony’s space-facing (or “zenith”) port. Notwithstanding the disappointing loss of IDA-1, a major reconfiguration of the station’s U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) is underway, with the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) having been robotically relocated to improve clearance issues on 27 May and PMA-3 due to be moved from its current home on the Tranquility node over to its final home at Harmony zenith in late-October 2015.