One Small Step for Boeing

The next pilots to fly a U.S. spacecraft may work for a private company.

CST-100 capsule
The CST-100 capsule and service module approach the ISS in this artist’s concept—for a stay that could last up to six months. Boeing

Calling all astronauts: Boeing has a job for you—to fly its planned crew capsule to the International Space Station in late 2015.

The new Crew Space Transportation-100 spacecraft will carry two Boeing astronauts on the last of four tests of the capsule and its Atlas V rocket, according to managers at Boeing and the United Launch Alliance, who briefed reporters yesterday in a conference call from Houston. That launch—to rendezvous, but not dock, with the ISS—is set for the last quarter of 2015. If all goes according to plan, the CST-100 then would become operational in the first quarter of 2016 to ferry NASA astronauts to the station.

For now, Boeing just needs a single pilot. “We’re just starting the interview process,” said John Elbon, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Crew Programs. “We’re looking at flown [former NASA] astronauts. Someone who has flown in space would have great credentials and fare well in the selection process. It’s not necessary for us to have a stable of pilots in the near term, but we need to get one on board to influence the [CST-100] design.”

But first, Boeing and ULA, who makes the Atlas V, will need to modify the rocket to make it “man rated” so it can safely carry people from the Launch Complex 41 pad at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida.

With 97 consecutive successes over the years—26 of them by the Atlas V—the Atlas vehicle has the world’s best safety record, said George Sowers, ULA’s vice president of business development. Among the modifications needed for it to safely carry humans are a new abort system, and an emergency detection system that monitors instruments on the rocket and alerts ground controllers and crew to any potential danger. “When we did it for Mercury, we monitored seven instruments,” said Sowers. “This time we’ll be monitoring closer to 100.”

Boeing would not say how much it will pay ULA for the use of the Atlas V. Boeing is one of four companies (the others are SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin) competing to transport astronauts to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. But Boeing received the largest share—$92.3 million—in the second round of the program, announced in April. That’s on top of the $18 million Boeing got in the first round.

“The real purpose [of Commercial Crew] is to enable what’s next,” said Elbon. “We need to use the space station. We’ve got a lot invested in it. We want to do it in an affordable way so there’s money left in the NASA budget [for manned deep space exploration]. This is the quickest way to close the gap and get crews flying again.”

Boeing’s four tests will require only three rockets. The first, a launch pad abort test in 2014, will not need an Atlas V. The second, in the first quarter of 2015, will be an unmanned orbital checkout of the CST-100. The third, in mid-year, will be an unmanned ascent abort test, with the abort coming at the time of rocket staging. The final flight will involve the pair of Boeing astronauts flying near the station, then returning to Earth. For all the flights, Boeing will use the Atlas V 412 version of the launcher, which has a single solid rocket booster with a double-engine upper stage Centaur. Boeing will determine after the tests whether to continue with the Atlas V when its spacecraft become operational, or to switch to another rocket like the Delta or SpaceX’s Falcon.

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