Commercial Crew Marks Year of Progress

The astronauts who will train for the first Commercial Crew Program flight tests are Doug Hurley, Eric Boe, Bob Behnken and Sunita "Suni" Williams. (Credit: NASA)
The astronauts who will train for the first Commercial Crew Program flight tests are Doug Hurley, Eric Boe, Bob Behnken and Sunita “Suni” Williams. (Credit: NASA)

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

A year after awarding landmark contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to build a new generation of human-rated space systems, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has made great strides to re-establish America’s capability to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. Both companies are constructing the infrastructure needed to safely launch and operate crew space transportation systems. They also have offered detailed refinements to their designs and begun building the test vehicles that will be put through extreme analysis before their flight test regimens begin.

These accomplishments set the tone for the next two critical years that will culminate with operational missions to the International Space Station carrying up to four astronauts. They will increase the amount of time dedicated to research on the orbiting laboratory, solving the problems of long duration spaceflight so astronauts can make a successful journey to Mars in the future.

The SpaceX Hangar at Launch Pad 39A. (Credit: NASA)
The SpaceX Hangar at Launch Pad 39A. (Credit: NASA)

The contracts awarded Sept. 16, 2014 – known as CCtCap, short for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability – mark the latest in a series of development and certification efforts between NASA and the American aerospace industry since 2010. These contracts call for Boeing and SpaceX to build their systems and conduct flight tests with astronauts aboard in 2017. NASA will use the data gathered to certify the systems for operational missions to the space station.

As innovative as the technology is in the new generation of spacecraft, the process itself is an innovative approach to human spaceflight development. Under the Commercial Crew Program, NASA offered the American aerospace industry a chance to use its own expertise to rethink many aspects of human spaceflight while capitalizing on NASA’s vast, specialized expertise. The end result is shaping up to be the space transportation services NASA envisioned, along with a potential new high-tech industry for America that could open access to space for more people than ever before.

The first tier is placed for construction of the Crew Access Tower at Space Launch Complex 41. (Credit: NASA)
The first tier is placed for construction of the Crew Access Tower at Space Launch Complex 41. (Credit: NASA)

“It’s hard to believe that it has been just a year since we announced the awards, and I think that is because we have made huge progress throughout the past year,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division. “We are not done yet. We have perhaps some of the most difficult work ahead of us. It will take the collective efforts of the NASA and industry teams to meet the challenges ahead.”

NASA named four astronauts to train to fly orbital flight tests in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunita “Suni” Williams are accomplished astronauts with significant test pilot experience that will be called on during their training.

Boeing completed numerous wind tunnel runs and splash tests of Starliner, while SpaceX conducted intensive software analyses of the flight programming that will operate the Crew Dragon from launch to landing. The evaluation schedules were designed to build on each other with tests becoming increasingly complex.

Boeing and SpaceX are in the midst of modifications along Florida’s Space Coast where both companies will launch. Boeing recently opened its Starliner assembly and processing facility, which took advantage of existing infrastructure to modernize a former space shuttle orbiter processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Boeing and United Launch Alliance also are stacking tiers of the Crew Access Tower nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 where Atlas V rockets will lift Starliners into orbit. SpaceX is upgrading Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39A to serve its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon. SpaceX also is nearing completion of a 300-foot-long horizontal processing hangar at the base of the pad, where spacecraft and rockets will be readied for flight.

Boeing is building a Structural Test Article of the Starliner that will include all the systems of an operational spacecraft. The test version will not go to low-Earth orbit, but will be put through numerous evaluations, including a pad abort test to see how it withstands conditions similar to what it would experience during a mission. The company also will conduct several tests of the parachute system that the Starliner will use to safely land at the end of a mission.

SpaceX completed its pad abort test under a separate agreement with NASA and has a series of propulsion systems tests coming up this year, along with an in-depth review of its plans for the launch pad to accommodate the unique needs of astronauts and ground support teams.

“Construction efforts on both launch pads will continue throughout the end of this year, while Boeing and SpaceX engineers and designers continue testing key systems, building hardware and refining their path to flight,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “All I can say is don’t blink, because crew flight tests to the station in 2017 will be here before you know it, and we have a lot to do in that timeframe.”

When the second anniversary of the contract award comes around next year, NASA and its partners expect to be in the home stretch, preparing for tests on the horizon and the promise of returning human launches to U.S. soil that much closer.

  • windbourne

    gads.
    With all of the playing by CONgress, I hope that these 4 really get to fly.

    At the least, I am hoping that SpaceX AND Boeing will simply finish these out on their own dime, and start flying by end of 2016. Far better to have them be paid the same price as Russia gets per seat for several flights and have 3 human launchers to the ISS by end of 2017, then to have cheaper seats in 201[89], but only have 1 human launcher for another 1-2 years.

  • TimR

    They look like regular Joes and Joans which is a good thing.

  • Commercial space at great expense for a couple of government employees.

    NASA inspires, once again.

  • Hug Doug

    All four have impressive spaceflight resumes, with two shuttle flights apiece, and Sunita Williams also has flown in a Soyuz. I believe that NASA has chosen these four seasoned veterans in order to give the Commercial Crew program the best chances of success, since their experience will allow them to give Boeing and SpaceX invaluable input on the functionality of their respective spacecraft.

  • Athelstane

    As opposed to Government Space at far greater expense and much longer delays for a couple of government employees, yes?

  • Flying on a Boeing spacecraft cheaper than the Soyuz?

    I beg to differ.

  • Athelstane

    It’s probably a close call.

    But at least it’s an American vehicle, not dependent on the graces of Vladimir Putin.

    More to the point, it’s still greatly cheaper than Orion (!), the Shuttle (!!) or whatever system MSFC would have cooked up for ISS crew delivery.

    I myself would have preferred Sierra Nevada over Boeing, based on what I know of the bids (which I admit is not what I would like). But it was probably unreasonable to hope that one of the CCtCap contractors wasn’t going to be a legacy space corporation like Boeing.

  • None of this is cheap. Cheaper than Orion is not a compliment.

    Cheap will have to be something radically different that this, And it will have to involve completely different motives than this.

  • Athelstane

    Well, it’s a step in the right direction, even with compromises. Something was needed to jumpstart commercial ventures into space; no player on the board had the capital to try anything but suborbital flight. These vehicles could, after all, be used before long to fly non-government crew to Bigelow stations.

  • You space cadets seem to have Bigelow on the brain as well. Do you really thing Bob is going to pull a rabbit out of his hat? Have you heard at all what goes on in that place?

  • Athelstane

    All right, Thomas, clue me in. Where are you going with this? What are you advocating, exactly?

  • Starting over from scratch, obviously. That opportunity will present itself with fully reusable cryogenic launch vehicles around 2019. I suggest you start preparing for that now.

    Government funded CST-100s on Atlas Vs to the ISS won’t work. This is just shoveling in good money after bad here.

  • DTARS

    SpaceX will land in water at first, I wonder how soon it will be till they land on earth, and get to reuse dragon V2s for their own commercial ventures.

  • As long as NASA keeps pouring money into the SLS, Orion, CST-100 and the EELVs, it will be quite some time. The problem with NASA here is that they are absolutely unable to admit to their own mistake, and so the ponzi scheme continues. They just keep piling more BS onto more BS.

  • DTARS

    I believe that is the reason SpaceX and Blue Orion have changed fuel type, With all that BS around you maybe as well use it to fuel your rockets.

  • DTARS

    Boeing ULA is building a crew access tower for Atlas? Will this same tower or pad be used/modified for Vulcan or will Vulcan require a complete different new launch Pad???

    Will atlas still fly after Vulcans maiden flight

  • Athelstane

    That opportunity will present itself with fully reusable cryogenic launch vehicles around 2019. I suggest you start preparing for that now.

    Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • TimAndrews868

    “Commercial Crew Marks Year of Progress”

    With both SpaceX and Orbital grounded, I thought it was Commercial Cargo causing the reliance on Progress….

  • Larry J

    Assuming that Vulcan in built, it’ll still take time between the first flight and approval to launch people. They’ll be using Atlas boosters for a while. I wonder if they’re going to use a different launch pad for Vulcan or somehow modify the existing pad to handle Vulcan and Atlas. The first stage propellants are different but it could be done. As for the tower, does anyone know the dimensions of the Vulcan to compare with Atlas V? The same tower might work for both.

  • TimAndrews868

    When ULA announced Vulcan this spring, they hadn’t decided on launch locations yet. My suspicion is it won’t be the same as Atlas, at the very least to avoid a time gap between Atlas and Vulcan flights while the Vulcan ground service equipment is set up. More likely, I expect there will be overlap between the two systems, with Atlas not phased out until after Vulcan is flying and has has the requisite launches done and achieved its EELV certification for the Air Force.

  • TimAndrews868

    “As long as NASA keeps pouring money into the SLS, Orion, CST-100 and the EELVs, it will be quite some time. The problem with NASA here is that they are absolutely unable to admit to their own mistake, and so the ponzi scheme continues.”

    You are attributing Congress’ decisions to NASA. NASA has no choice about pouring money into those programs, the Space Act of 2010 mandates all of those programs. It also defines how much must be spent on them. The current budget conflict for Commercial Crew stems from NASA wanting to spend less on SLS and more on Commercial Crew, and congress instead allocating funds in line with the existing legislation.

  • Are you saying that ULA is making this whole thing up about the BE-4? And SpaceX is making this whole thing up about the Raptor? Are you saying that the BE-3 is not a flight worthy engine? That’s exactly what you are saying. I get that.

  • Yeah, yeah, yeah, congress. NASA invented Constellation.

    I get that.

  • Athelstane

    No, all I am saying is that a) none of them have flown yet (especially not with demonstrated reusability, though SpaceX is closing in on that), and b) none of them have, therefore, shown themselves to be big game changers on launch cost reduction.

    Maybe they will. I’m just not going to be dogmatic about it just yet. Especially since reusability of the BE-4 won’t factor in on the initial run of Vulcans, as things stand now.

  • But your skepticism does not apply to the CST-100. Odd.

  • Athelstane

    Actually, it does. The CST-100 delivers less capability and is costing twice as much in CCtCap money as Dragon. It’s also less far along in actual development (paper milestones don’t mean much).

    But as political reality, it was unlikely that one of the two Commercial Crew vendors *wasn’t* going to be a legacy NASA contractor, given the clout they exercise on the Hill and at NASA. I’m not happy about it; I still think it’s remarkable progress that SpaceX got a contract at all, and that they are being allowed the freedom they have been permitted so far.

  • Right,but Boeing is designing and building it, just as SpaceX is designing and building the Raptor, and Blue Origin is designing and building the BE-4, and already have orders for it, for a rocket that ULA is designing and building, and Blue Origin has already designed, built and flown the BE-3.

    So why all the uneven skepticism? If these companies can’t deliver in 2019 like they promised, what makes you think that Boeing can deliver in 2017 as they have promised? Just sayin.

  • Athelstane

    It’s the reusability and the extent of cost reduction part I’m a little more skeptical about.

  • You’re right. All those crashes.

    Clearly they aren’t trying hard enough.