Meet the CST-100 Starliner, the newly unveiled name of Boeing’s commercial crew transportation spacecraft. It’s been designed with a focus on automated flight, reliable operation and frequent flights carrying NASA astronauts to the space station. It also may take paying customers to the awe-inspiring heights of low-Earth orbit and the unique sensation of sustained weightlessness.
NASA last year awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to each develop systems that will safely and cost effectively transport astronauts to the International Space Station from the United States.
The CST-100 will be assembled and processed for launch at the revitalized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, or C3PF, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA had used the facility for 20 years as a shuttle processing hangar and for the extensive preps and testing of the space shuttle main engines in the engine shop.
“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.”
With the high bay of the C3PF expected to be complete in December 2015, engineers are building the structural test article for the Starliner in the remodeled engine shop. Though not scheduled to ever make it into space, the test version of the spacecraft will be put through a continuum of tests culminating with a pad abort test in 2017. It will be used as a pathfinder to prove the design Boeing and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program worked together to develop is sound and can accomplish its missions.
For NASA, the main mission for Boeing’s Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is to re-establish an American launch capability for astronauts to use to reach the space station and make more use of its unique research environment. Experiments are conducted every day in orbit that will improve life on Earth and find answers to the challenges of deep space exploration so astronauts can undertake a successful journey to Mars in the future.
“Commercial crew is an essential component of our journey to Mars, and in 35 states, 350 American companies are working to make it possible for the greatest country on Earth to once again launch our own astronauts into space,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “That’s some impressive investment.”
NASA expects to use the Starliner and Crew Dragon to take four crew members to the space station at a time, increasing the resident crew on the orbiting laboratory to seven at a time instead of the current six. By adding the workweek of a single new crew member to the capabilities of the space station, the amount of research time available to astronauts in orbit will double to about 80 hours a week.
Kennedy will be the home of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, with other buildings at the center to be used as Boeing’s Launch Control Center and for mission support.
“Kennedy Space Center has transitioned more than 50 facilities for commercial use. We have made improvements and upgrades to well-known Kennedy workhorses such as the Vehicle Assembly Building, mobile launcher, crawler–transporter and Launch Pad 39B in support of Orion, the SLS and Advanced Exploration Systems,” said Robert Cabana, Kennedy’s center director. “I am proud of our success in transforming Kennedy Space Center to a 21st century, multi-user spaceport that is now capable of supporting the launch of all sizes and classes of vehicles, including horizontal launches from the Shuttle Landing Facility, and spacecraft processing and landing.”
Boeing officials say Kennedy was a natural choice given its expertise along the full range of spacecraft and rocket processing to launch and operations.
“When Boeing was looking for the prime location for its program headquarters, we knew Florida had a lot to offer from the infrastructure to the supplier base to the skilled work force,” said Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who now is deputy manager of operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.
The Starliner will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. The crew access tower that will support astronauts and ground support teams before launch is being built a couple of miles away from the launch pad now and will be assembled adjacent to the current structures already at the pad. ULA will continue to operate the pad for Atlas V processing and launches during construction of the tower.
Although the infrastructure is coming together quickly, the first flight of the Starliner and Crew Dragon depends on a number of design and testing milestones for the entire space system before either one will be in a position to take its first flight test.
Working under contracts awarded last year, both Boeing and SpaceX agreed to conduct an orbital mission without a crew aboard for their respective spacecraft. Then each will launch a test flight, which includes astronauts, to demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to meet the demands of human-rated spaceflight. Following that mission, the spacecraft will be certified for operational missions carrying a full complement of crew to support the research work on the space station. And astronauts will once again will be taking regular flights from Florida’s Space Coast.