Boeing, SpaceX update progress on commercial crew spacecraft
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — When one talks of a space race these days, it is no longer just between geopolitical superpowers. Now several U.S. corporations are in a race to develop and launch their own brands of crewed spacecraft for NASA, hopefully starting as soon as 2018.
Boeing and SpaceX recently presented updates on the progress with their space vessels. The two aerospace firms are working to be the successors to the long-running Space Shuttle Program and the answer to America’s current reliance on Russian space systems for placing astronauts in Earth orbit.
“Astronauts will once again fly from the Space Coast,” said Lisa Colloredo, associate manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a May 24 panel kicking off the 44th Space Congress in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
In September 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX with a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract worth an estimated total of some $6.8 billion. With this contract the two aerospace companies are to complete development of their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017.
Boeing recently confirmed a slip of its first crew test flight to February 2018. Earlier this year, SpaceX also delayed its initial Crew Dragon unmanned mission from late 2016 to May 2017.
Boeing received $4.2 billion of the NASA contract. With these funds, their plan is to send astronauts into Earth orbit with their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rockets. Starliner should return from each of its missions with landings in the Southwestern United States utilizing a system of parachutes and airbags.
SpaceX’s contract has a maximum value of $2.6 billion to develop its Crew Dragon vessel. This crewed version of their Dragon fleet will eventually land on the ground using a retrorocket system. However, their initial test flights will have the Crew Dragon “splashdown” in the ocean and utilize a fourth parachute to handle the missions involving astronauts.
Boeing recently assembled the two halves of their prototype vehicle, named simply Spacecraft 1, at the Kennedy Space Center. This “structural test article” will then be shipped this summer to Huntington Beach, California, for tests.
“We’re bringing hardware in. We’re moving hardware out. And it’s really nice to see the factory flowing the way it should be,” said Danom Buck, manufacturing engineering manager for Boeing.
Ben Reed, director of the company’s Commercial Crew Program, described some of SpaceX’s efforts to develop reusable rockets. This included a video presentation of the first successful landing by a Falcon 9 rocket launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 22, 2015.
“I know that we’re going to feel like that, all of us are, when we put those first crew, those astronauts in there and watch them go up, and then bring them home,” said Reed. “It’s going to be that, I think, times ten when we watch that happen, flying right here out at Kennedy.”
Future SpaceX milestones include key engineering reviews of the Crew Dragon’s design and modifications to KSC’s launch pad 39A, the very place where Saturn V and NASA’s fleet of shuttle orbiters were lofted from into space. The pad modifications will include a new access arm and “white room” to lead astronauts to their vessels.
One big hope NASA has with using commercial space vehicles to bring astronauts to the ISS and eventually elsewhere in the Solar System is that Starliner and Crew Dragon will be a much less expensive way to transport humans into the final frontier. This includes not only past efforts but also with the current use of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA’s Colloredo said that the Boeing and SpaceX contracts will result in per seat prices averaging $58 million, which is about $23 million less than Russia’s going rate for seats on the Soyuz.
“The cost effectiveness part, we weren’t 100 percent sure how that would turn out,” she said. “It turns out it is a very cost effective approach to go with the private industry.” Colloredo also said that the program will produce two certified crew systems for less than $5 billion, a relative bargain compared to historical costs to develop such systems.
As was noted in a report on The Space Review as well as on NPR, SpaceX also plans on using a version of its Dragon vehicle called Red Dragon to eventually place humans on the planet Mars. CEO Elon Musk hopes to have an unmanned Red Dragon landing on the Red Planet as soon as 2018.
This article was updated at 3:11 p.m. EDT on Saturday, March 29 to include links from The Space Review and NPR.
Video courtesy of NASAKennedy
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.