For the second time this year, Boeing has received a Post-Certification Mission (PCM) order from NASA to perform a dedicated crew rotation mission to the International Space Station (ISS), under the requirements of its $4.2 billion Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) agreements. Having been jointly selected in September 2014, alongside SpaceX, to restore the capability to launch U.S. astronauts aboard U.S.-built vehicles, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era, Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft—recently renamed the “Starliner”—received its initial PCM order in May 2015. SpaceX followed suit when it gained its first order in November, although it remains to be seen which of the two commercial providers will be chosen to stage the eagerly awaited U.S. Crew Vehicle (USCV)-1 flight, scheduled to deliver four astronauts and cosmonauts and around 220 pounds (100 kg) of pressurized cargo to the station, no sooner than May 2018.
Yesterday (Friday), NASA announced that it had awarded Boeing a second PCM. When one counts SpaceX’s own initial award from November, this represents the third of four guaranteed orders under the language of the CCtCap contract, whose value is expected to top $6.8 billion across both companies. Between them, Boeing and SpaceX are expected to fly a minimum of two and a maximum of six crew-rotation missions to the space station, beginning with USCV-1. “Boeing met the criteria for NASA to award the company its second mission,” it was reported, “with the successful completion of interim developmental milestones and internal design reviews of its Starliner spacecraft, United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and associated ground system.” As described by AmericaSpace’s Mike Killian earlier this year, Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.—from which site Atlas V 422 boosters will deliver Starliners into orbit—is receiving significant enhancements to render it capable of supporting human missions, including a 200-foot-tall (60-meter) Crew Access Tower.
As noted previously by AmericaSpace, both companies are already tasked with staging an unpiloted demonstration flight and a subsequent crewed test flight of their respective vehicles, all of which will voyage to the ISS. SpaceX currently plans to stage the 30-day unpiloted mission of its Crew Dragon as soon as December 2016—a target which may meet with some delay, following last summer’s catastrophic Falcon 9 booster failure during ascent—before executing a 14-day crewed test flight by April 2017. Boeing, meanwhile, is aiming to stage its 30-day unpiloted Starliner mission in April 2017, followed by a 14-day crewed flight the following July. Last July, veteran shuttle and ISS fliers Suni Williams, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and former Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken were assigned to the first Commercial Crew training group and are closely following the development of the Starliner and the Crew Dragon, ahead of receiving flight assignments to their early missions.
However, the dates for the unpiloted and crewed test flights met with some doubt, as NASA struggled throughout the first half of 2015 to secure full Congressional funding for the Commercial Crew Program and the frustration of Administrator Charlie Bolden was barely veiled in a 5 August 2015 letter to the leadership of the committees responsible for the space agency’s annual budget. In his letter, Gen. Bolden denounced the continued lack of adequate funding for the program and announced a $490 million modification to the uneasy contract with Russia, which currently provides the United States with its sole means of getting astronauts to the space station.
The General’s words came only weeks after the Senate Appropriations Committee cut $344 million—a 27 percent reduction—from the Commercial Crew Program budget and he noted that reductions from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget would “result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY2016” and would “likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of 2016”, thus inducing additional schedule slippage and increased costs. In making its announcement of the SpaceX award yesterday, NASA cautioned that if it “does not receive the full requested funding for CCtCap contracts in FY2016 and beyond”, it would have no alternative but “to delay future milestones for both U.S. companies and continue its sole reliance on Russia to transport American astronauts to the space station.”
The situation appeared to have met with kinder following winds in recent days, as Congress fully funded the Commercial Crew Program in 2016, awarding $1.24 billion, which was the exact amount requested by President Obama. “The final budget deal comes after protracted negotiations between the House and Senate,” noted an Ars Technica article, dated 16 December. “It allocates a total of $19.3 billion to NASA for the coming fiscal year, which is $756 million above the President’s request.”
Although the USCV-1 mission is still more than two years into the future, the long lead-times associated with each PCM order “provide time for each company to manufacture and assemble the launch vehicle and spacecraft”, as well as satisfactorily completing a thorough certification process. Each Starliner will ride atop ULA Atlas V—flying for the first time in its “422” configuration, with a 13-foot-diameter (4-meter) Payload Fairing (PLF), two strap-on boosters and a Dual-Engine Centaur (DEC) upper stage—whilst each Crew Dragon will fly aboard SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9, previously known informally as the Falcon 9 “Full Thrust” (FT) or “v1.2”.
For Boeing, the coming months are significant, as it passes the centenary in July 2016 of its founding by aviation pioneer William E. Boeing. “As our company begins its second century, our Starliner program continues Boeing’s tradition of space industry innovation with commercial service to the space station,” said John Mulholland, vice president and manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program. “We value NASA’s confidence in the Starliner system to keep their crews safe.”
“Once certified by NASA, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon each will be capable of two crew launches to the station, per year,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Placing orders for those missions now really sets us up for a sustainable future aboard the International Space Station.”
Following their unpiloted and piloted certification missions, both Boeing and SpaceX will clear significant hurdles to allow them to press ahead with their PCM commitments. A “standard” PCM will carry up to four NASA or NASA-sponsored astronauts and cosmonauts and about 220 pounds (100 kg) of pressurized cargo, allowing for the eventual expansion of ISS expedition crews from six to seven members. Both the Starliner and the Crew Dragon are capable of remaining docked at the station—via International Docking Adapters (IDAs) at the forward and space-facing (or “zenith”) port of the Harmony node—for as long as 210 days and will serve as assured crew return vehicles during that period.
“With the Commercial Crew vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX, we will soon add a seventh crew member to International Space Station missions, which will significantly increase the amount of crew time to conduct research,” said Kirk Shireman, manager of the ISS Program. “This will enable NASA and our partners to ramp up the important research being done every day for the benefit of all humanity.”
As Boeing and SpaceX head towards their unpiloted and crewed test flights and their opening PCMs thereafter, their combined efforts will mark the first launches of U.S. astronauts, aboard U.S.-manufactured spacecraft, and from U.S. soil, in more than six years, roughly equivalent to the 1975-1981 gap between the twilight of the Apollo era and the maiden voyage of the shuttle. Both piloted test flights will feature a two-person crew, with the inaugural voyage of Boeing’s Starliner expected to carry an “in-house” test pilot and a NASA astronaut—in keeping with the company’s flight-test heritage—whereas SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is expected to reserve both seats for NASA fliers. AmericaSpace was told by SpaceX earlier in 2015 that there is “no current plan for a SpaceX pilot or engineer on any of the flights” and, moreover, that the company does not have its own “cadre of folks in training or selected.” It is believed that SpaceX originally intended to fly at least one of its own crew members on the piloted test flight, but NASA opted against this.