Boeing CST-100
Boeing has proposed developing a version of its CST-100 crew spacecraft to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station. (credit: Boeing illustration)

COCOA BEACH, Fla. — From pressure seals used on the international space station to rendezvous and docking sensors developed for the Pentagon’s Orbital Express experiment, Boeing is drawing heavily on heritage space and aviation programs for its proposed CST-100 commercial human spacecraft.

The seven-passenger, reusable Crew Space Transportation capsule is Boeing’s contender in a tightening race to provide NASA with orbital spaceflight transportation services. With the retirement of the space shuttles this summer, the United States is dependent on Russia to fly astronauts to the space station, at a cost of more than $60 million per person. NASA currently is investing $316.2 million among four firms, including Boeing, for development of space taxis and related technologies. A solicitation for detailed design work is expected to be released in December.

“For this program, we’re going to be pulling heavily off of our human space experience and our commercial aircraft experience to develop a safe, reliable and affordable system,” Chuck Hardison, Boeing’s production and ground systems manager for the CST-100, said at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association conference here earlier this month.

Operational costs factor heavily into the spacecraft’s design and were a primary driver in Boeing’s decision to base its program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In partnership with Space Florida, a state-backed economic development agency, Boeing is leasing one of NASA’s space shuttle processing hangars for prelaunch processing, production, assembly, manufacturing and testing of the CST-100 spacecraft. The company also plans to locate its mission control center in Florida as well.

Boeing is partnering with United Launch Alliance, which is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to fly the CST-100s on Atlas 5 rockets. Docking at the space station — or any other orbital complex, such as Bigelow Aerospace’s proposed inflatable habitats — would take place the same day as launch.

The capsules would be able to stay in orbit up to 210 days, as per NASA requirements, and would land about six hours after undocking. The CST-100 is being designed to return on land instead of splashing down in the ocean, though it will be equipped for water landing as a backup.

“One of the reasons we’re doing that is to ensure that our design is capable of 10 missions for the crew module,” Hardison said. “If it went into the water, we’d have much more difficulty in recertifying it for flight, structurally and [for the] avionics onboard.”

The crew module would be paired with a new service module, which holds the propulsion system, for each flight.

Partners in the CST-100 program are Bigelow Aerospace, which is providing engineering services and building mockups; Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which provides propulsion systems; Airborne Systems, which is providing deceleration technology and parachutes; Alliant Techsystems (ATK), which is providing components and tanks for propulsion; and Spincraft, which is manufacturing the reusable pressure vehicle structure. “It’s an innovative design, a spun formed structure,” Hardison said.

The process produces two halves of a capsule, which are mated together using a Gasko seal — the same type of seal that is being used on the space station to link pressurized modules with connecting nodes. Boeing is NASA’s prime contractor on the space station.

Other heritage technologies Boeing is tapping for the CST-100 design include:

  • Primary crew display from the 787 Dreamliner airplane program.
  • Thermal protection system from the space shuttle program.
  • Launch abort system engine from the Atlas 2 sustainer program.
  • Automated rendezvous and docking sensor suite from the Orbital Express program.
  • Parachute system from the Apollo program.
  • Airbag landing systems from the Crew Exploration Vehicle program.
  • Reaction control systems engines and flight computers from company proprietary programs.

“We are borrowing from our other programs technologies that have been proven,” Hardison said.

So far, the strategy has been successful. NASA, which is paying Boeing when it achieves predetermined milestones, agreed to add $20.6 million if Boeing met three additional milestones, bringing the potential value of its present contract up to $112.9 million. The company previously received $18 million under the first phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. Boeing declined to say how much of its own funds it has invested in the project.

The goal is to get to a preliminary design review in February or March 2012. Depending on funding, the company plans to have a launch pad abort test in the first half of 2014; an orbital flight test in the first half of 2015; an ascent abort test in mid-2015; and a crew flight test in the second half of 2015.

“The baseline plan is to be crew transport capable by the close of 2015,” Hardison said.

NASA had requested $850 million for the next phase of the program, but was allotted $406 million for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Managers have not yet said how the reduced funding would impact the number of contractors or scope of work.



Boeing’s CST-100 Capsule Finishes Follow-up Review

Boeing Unveils Design for Commercial Crew Capsule