Boeing’s CST-100 approved for its first commercial crewed flight to ISS
NASA has approved Boeing’s CST-100 to carry out its first crewed flight to the International Space Station. Under the $4.2 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract NASA has awarded to Boeing, the company is required to ferry crews to and from the orbiting laboratory, something that the United States has been incapable of doing since the close of the shuttle era in 2011. If everything goes according to plan, the first commercial flight will be a watershed moment as it will mark the first time that a private company has provided the U.S.’ space agency with crew transportation services.
The announcement as to which two of the three remaining competitors under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program would proceed from the Commercial Crew integrated Capability to CCtCap was made in September of last year (2014). Despite being the fan-favorite of many a space enthusiast, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane did not proceed forward.
Instead, NASA tapped the CST-100 and Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX ) crewed Dragon spacecraft as the two offerings which would carry future expedition crews to the ISS, as was detailed on Aviation Week and Space Technology.
NASA is banking on this effort to allow them to maintain their responsibilities to the ISS as the agency works to send crews to distant destinations. These include taking a boulder pulled from an asteroid and towed into lunar orbit, and also a mission to the planet Mars.
“Commercial Crew launches are critical to the International Space Station Program because it ensures multiple ways of getting crews to orbit,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist via a NASA press release. “It also will give us crew return capability so we can increase the crew to seven, letting us complete a backlog of hands-on critical research that has been building up due to heavy demand for the National Laboratory.”
Boeing is an established fixture within the aerospace community, having been founded in July of 1916 by William Boeing.
“This occasion will go in the books of Boeing’s nearly 100 years of aerospace and more than 50 years of space flight history,” said John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Space Exploration division. “We look forward to ushering in a new era in human space exploration.”
“We’re on track to fly in 2017, and this critical milestone moves us another step closer in fully maturing the CST-100 design,” said John Mulholland, vice president of Commercial Programs. “Our integrated and measured approach to spacecraft design ensures quality performance, technical excellence and early risk mitigation.”
The “CST” in the spacecraft’s designation stands for Crew Space Transportation, it is hoped that the craft will be able to provide reliable access to the orbiting laboratory along with the crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon.
Under the tCap phase of CCP, Boeing is required to conduct at least two (with as many as six possible) service flights to the ISS. This should allow the craft to complete its crew certification.
For their part, Boeing has relayed that it feels that the CST-100’s design maturity was the key determining factor in its selection to conduct this mission under NASA’s commercial crew efforts and that it will now move forward and be readied for crewed flight.
“NASA required we successfully complete the Certification Baseline Review – our first CCtCap (Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Phase) milestone, successfully complete an interim milestone representing work culminating in a significant design review (for us, this was the Delta Integrated CDR (Critical Design Review), our 4th tCap milestone), and meet additional ATP criteria we proposed (that is different for each provider),” Boeing’s Kelly Kaplan told SpaceFlight Insider.
The company feels it has successfully demonstrated to NASA that the Commercial Crew Transportation System has reached design maturity appropriate to proceed to assembly, integration, and testing activities.
As noted by Boeing, the CST-100 is designed to be able to carry as many as seven passengers to the sole low-Earth orbit (LEO) destination at present – the ISS. The interior of the craft can be configured to carry a mix of cargo and crew as well.
There are plans to increase the number of space stations on orbit – via Bigelow Aerospace’s commercial space station. This proposed facility also plans on utilizing the CST-100. This fact appears to highlight the confidence that Boeing has expressed in its design.
“I think rather than this decision being about aspects of the vehicle itself that promoted the decision it’s more about where we’re at with the maturity of our design,” Kaplan said.
When it does fly, the CST-100 will be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. Engineers are already at work constructing the crew access arm that will allow astronauts to enter the CST-100.
In terms of the Space Agency that these efforts are being carried out on behalf of, officials have noted that, while progress is important, the safety of the crew is paramount.
“Final development and certification are top priority for NASA and our commercial providers, but having an eye on the future is equally important to the commercial crew and station programs,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Our strategy will result in safe, reliable and cost-effective crew missions.”
Whereas the CST-100 might have been cleared to conduct its first flight, it has not been selected to carry out the first commercial crewed flight to the International Space Station. As NASA has stated: “Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time.”
Seeking further clarification, SpaceFlight Insider reached out to Boeing who confirmed: Being on contract first doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll fly first. That will be determined down the line.
Video courtesy of Boeing
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.