By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Manufacturing facilities are in operation on the east and west coasts to build the next generation of spacecraft to return human launch capability to American soil. Over the past six months, Boeing and SpaceX – the companies partnered with NASA to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station – each have begun producing the first in a series of spacecraft.
Rather than building one Boeing CST-100 Starliner or SpaceX Crew Dragon at a time, each company set out to produce several spacecraft in an assembly-line fashion while maintaining the careful attention to detail and inspections required of any spacecraft, particularly those that will carry astronauts into orbit.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partners are building and testing components across the United States as prototype spacecraft and flight test vehicles are carefully assembled. Subsystems for the operational missions are coming together, as spacecraft and rocket assembly lines gear up for production.
In Florida, where Boeing is constructing Starliners, engineers have assembled the crew module of the Structural Test Article that will be shipped to Huntington Beach, California, where it will join the previously delivered service module for extensive testing under a host of exhaustive conditions. The two main elements of the first flight-like Starliner – the upper and lower pressure domes – inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are undergoing early check outs and assembly before they are joined together for environmental qualification tests and the pad abort test.
SpaceX is welding the pressure vessels for four Crew Dragons, two test articles and two flight vehicles in the company’s Hawthorne, California, factory. The next six months are expected to see each of the pressure vessels built up to different stages for structural and subsystem testing followed by uncrewed and crew flight tests known as Demo 1 and Demo 2 for “Demonstration Mission.”
The launch facilities for both companies are deep into their modifications and construction. The Crew Access Tower on Space Launch Complex 41, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, is in place and the Crew Access Arm astronauts will use to cross from the tower to the Starliner hatch will be transported to the pad for placement on the tower this summer. Additionally, about 25,000 lines of software code have been written for the rocket and launch site to communicate with all the new crew-specific hardware. All the work has been completed while still allowing launches of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V from the launch pad.
At historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy, where Apollo and space shuttle missions began, SpaceX is taking down the rotating service structure designed to handle shuttle payloads. They’ve also removed more than 500,000 pounds of steel from the fixed service structure and are building shielding around the tower to protect from the blast of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Its Crew Access Arm also is under construction and is slated to be installed on the tower later this year.
Numerous readiness reviews, which assemble engineers from NASA and the respective company, will be held throughout development before the launch sites are used for the first time to launch astronauts.