NASA and Boeing unveiled the company’s new spacecraft processing facility at a grand opening event at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this afternoon, revealing the new name of their CST-100 crew capsule: Starliner. The old space shuttle orbiter processing hangar has been transformed to support the next generation of low-Earth orbit human spaceflight, and work is well underway building a Starliner pathfinder test article to certify the vehicle’s design before putting astronauts onboard for flights to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in the next couple years.
“One hundred years ago we were on the dawn of the commercial aviation era and today, with the help of NASA, we’re on the dawn of a new commercial space era,” said Boeing’s John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Space Exploration. “It’s been such a pleasure to work hand-in-hand with NASA on this commercial crew development, and when we look back 100 years from this point, I’m really excited about what we will have discovered.”
Starliner, which Boeing is developing in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, 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 previous interview with AmericaSpace, Chris Ferguson, a veteran astronaut and Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing, said he expects crews of five to fly.
The vehicle will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket, just a few miles from Boeing’s Starliner Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF), 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.”
Boeing, in partnership with Space Florida, has had a lease on the former OPF-3 shuttle hangar for some time now, modernizing the facility to provide an environment for efficient production, testing, and operations for the Starliner 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-100s 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.
VIDEO: Boeing Unveils Starliner Processing Facility
Boeing’s Starliner work is expected to bring 300-500 full time jobs to Florida’s “Space Coast,” which suffered a big economic blow from the retirement of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program in 2011.
“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 Boeing engineer Tony Castilleja in a previous AmericaSpace interview. “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.”
At ULA’s nearby Atlas Launch Complex-41 work is visibly underway with the crew access tower astronauts will need to board Starliner for their flights to space. Rising like an erector set, it’s the first of its kind intended for a vehicle that will carry humans into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the one built at Launch Complex 34 for the Apollo missions in the 1960s.
The tower will be comprised of seven major tier segments, or levels, and each will measure about 20 foot square and 28 feet tall. When finished, the tower will stand over 200 feet tall.
Boeing intends to utilize other facilities at KSC to supper their Commercial Crew Program as well, in addition to the C3PF, including a Launch Control Center.
SpaceX and Boeing both received NASA contracts to fly astronauts to and from the ISS with their Dragon and Starliner crew capsules. Boeing, however, received a much larger piece of the multi-billion-dollar pie, with $4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX. Boeing also received the first of up to six orders from NASA to execute a crew-rotation mission of Starliner to the ISS earlier this year, although NASA emphasized that the order does not necessarily imply that Starliner will fly ahead of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and that “determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time.”