Boeing Revamps Spacecraft Design To Attract Commercial Business

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LAS VEGAS — For those used to the spaceships of science fiction, the interior of an actual crewed spacecraft can be a bit of a shock. Instead of the sleek, bright, spacious designs of vehicles like the “Star Trek” Starship Enterprise, the interiors of NASA spacecraft are, by comparison, rather cramped and utilitarian. However, with the growing promise of commercial spaceflight, one company is rethinking its approach to spacecraft design, and in the process leveraging its experience in commercial aviation.

At an event here April 30, Boeing unveiled a new concept for the interior design of its CST-100 spacecraft that the company is developing as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The design features seats mounted individually on the bottom of the capsule that can be configured to accommodate as many as nine people, with an additional seat, elevated above the others, at a console for the spacecraft’s pilot.

The design is the result of a collaboration over several months between Boeing Space Exploration, which is developing the CST-100, and Boeing Commercial Airplanes, which offered its expertise in designing the interiors of airliners. “We want our spacecraft to have sort of that ‘Boeing touch,’” said Chris Ferguson, director of crew and mission operations for Boeing’s commercial crew effort.

“We started to realize the potential to develop for commercial customers a premium spacecraft interior architecture,” said Rachelle Ornan, regional director of sales and marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “It’s leaps and bounds different from interiors of the past. It’s less government-issue looking; it’s a lot cleaner, simpler, and more cheerful.”

That design started with the seating configuration. “The main thing that we attempted to do is develop a seating configuration that maximized exiting” in an emergency, said Rick Fraker, an industrial designer with Boeing. 

The design can be reconfigured to replace some of the seats with cargo storage.

The design incorporates a blue lighting scheme borrowed from the “Boeing Sky Interior” design originally developed for the company’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The capsule would also use a number of large LED screens in lieu of windows to provide passengers with views of Earth and space. The capsule would retain some windows, though, Ferguson said, primarily for use by the pilot.

All the elements of the design are intended to maximize the volume — or at least the perception of volume — of the spacecraft. “What we imagine will be important in space travel is maximizing the free volume once you’re in zero-g,” Fraker said. “We’re going to try to provide enough space in the capsule to allow passengers to freely move about.”

For now, the design concept is just that: a concept. Initial versions of the CST-100 that Boeing proposes to develop to transport astronauts to and from the international space station will use a more conventional interior design, with seating for four or five astronauts plus cargo, Ferguson said. “This design is sort of thinking beyond, when we understand what the business model really is and what the discriminating customer may want,” he said. 

To emphasize the potential commercial applications of a revamped interior design, Boeing unveiled the concept here at the headquarters of Bigelow Aerospace, a company with plans to operate commercial space stations using expandable module technology it has developed. The company is on track to have its first two BA 330 modules, each providing 330 cubic meters of volume, ready for launch by the end of 2017, said Jay Ingham, Bigelow Aerospace vice president and program manager.

“We believe there’s a huge pent-up demand for this,” Ingham said of his company’s space station plans, citing interest from companies and governments. “We’re betting that there’s a huge amount of growth in this area, and we’re positioning ourselves to take advantage of that.”

Those plans, he acknowledged, are dependent on the availability of vehicles like the CST-100 to transport crews and cargo to orbiting space stations and back; Bigelow has partnered with Boeing to support some aspects of the CST-100’s development. The future of the CST-100 and its futuristic interior design, though, may be in the hands of NASA, as it weighs proposals submitted early this year by Boeing, as well as by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., for the next phase of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, with a decision due in August.

Most industry observers expect NASA to award no more than two contracts for the development and testing of commercial crew vehicles. Ferguson acknowledged that the future of the CST-100 was uncertain should Boeing not win one of those contracts. “Boeing has not made a decision yet on what will happen if we’re not a part of the Commercial Crew Program,” he said. “It will clearly be a very dynamic time, and there will be a lot of factors to consider.”

Should Boeing move forward with the CST-100, though, company officials see commercial applications, enabled in part by the new interior design, possibly becoming a lucrative long-term market for the company. “This is potentially the next generation of revenue for the company,” said Ornan, who primarily works in airliner sales. “It’s very exciting to be a part of it.”

For Ferguson, a former astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions, including as commander of the final shuttle mission, STS-135, the proposed new CST-100 design represents a fundamental change, shifting away from a structured, “militaristic” approach to human spaceflight that dates back to the beginning of the Space Age. “This is like taking a C-17 military cargo airplane and seeing how you can turn it into a luxurious passenger aircraft,” he said.

“It’s all about the destination,” he added, “but getting there is half the fun.”