Boeing Space Exploration appears positioned for a piece of the action no matter which direction NASA’s human spaceflight program ultimately takes.
The company’s significant role in the Ares 1 rocket — designed for the now-defunct Constellation program — could be leveraged on a heavy-lift rocket the agency has been tasked to develop. Boeing also is developing the CST-100 capsule in a bid to fulfill U.S. President Barack Obama’s vision of outsourcing astronaut transportation to and from the international space station.
But the immediate future poses big concerns: Boeing is a major subcontractor on the space shuttle, which is being retired later this year. NASA, meanwhile, has yet to settle on a design for the heavy-lift Space Launch System, meaning it is unclear how much, if any, of Boeing’s Ares 1 work force that program will absorb.
Brewster Shaw, a former NASA astronaut, says Boeing has 750 employees tied to the shuttle program and another 400 jobs on Ares 1. All could be lost this summer, particularly if NASA decides to pursue a clean-sheet design on the congressionally mandated Space Launch System.
The CST-100 program could offset some of that, but for now, Boeing is just one of at least four companies competing to provide commercial crew transportation services to the space station.
Shaw spoke recently with Space News Staff Writer Amy Svitak.
Now that Congress has settled on a federal budget for 2011 and given NASA authority to cancel its Constellation contracts, do you expect the agency will continue Boeing’s Ares 1 upper-stage and avionics contracts?
We hope that NASA will utilize them so that we can make near-term progress on satisfying what Congress has asked for in the way of a Space Launch System. We believe NASA can use those Ares contracts and have our team continue with the development work they’ve been doing to support the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and we can turn that work into an upper stage or a first stage — any kind of cryogenic propulsion stage — because it’s basically the same stuff, just different sizes and using different engines perhaps. But the tankage and plumbing and structure and all that is very, very common. You can turn that into any kind of rocket you want.
What happens if NASA decides to go in a different direction?
If they don’t move forward on that, and that Ares 1 work goes away, then we will lay off another 400 people who are doing that work, in addition to our shuttle team this summer, and it would be a perfect storm for us. A very bad perfect storm. We would much rather be able to utilize the skills, experience and intellectual property that comes in the mind of the shuttle work force to support Jim Chilton’s team on the Space Launch System as well as John Elbon’s team on commercial crew.
NASA expects to settle on a final design by July, but they could spend a year defining system requirements before getting down to work.
We don’t know that for sure. I hope that they don’t. Or at least I hope that they get us on their team and let us help them define those requirements.
Could you go another year of not knowing?
No, no, of course we couldn’t. We can’t carry a work force like that for a year with no business. The 400 people associated with Ares, that would happen if NASA cancels our Ares contracts instead of transitioning those contracts to a Space Launch System. If NASA canceled those contracts then we have to reduce that work force. The shuttle team will go if we stay on schedule in late July.
Have you done any study work for NASA on the Space Launch System?
Yes, NASA has tasked us to do various analyses and studies and we’ve provided those through Marshall. But we’ve looked — all of us in industry have looked at various options, along with multiple NASA teams — at what makes sense from an architecture standpoint. We all kind of agree that if you really want to do serious deep space exploration, you need to be able to throw 50 metric tons to escape velocity; that’s what all of the studies say. If you want to do serious things out there you’ve got to have that capability. So we’ve all looked at how do you get the capability to put 50 metric tons on an escape path, and it takes a certain rocket. And so we’ve all kind of converged on, “This variant of the rocket can do this, and that variant can do that, here it is NASA, take your pick. We’ll support you whatever decision you make.”
Has NASA significantly curtailed spending on Boeing’s Ares 1 contracts this year?
Last summer we took a big dip. And that happened kind of early to mid-summer, after the president’s 2011 budget request came out that said we’re not going to do Constellation. But as the summer went on, we started getting more funding and very specific direction from Marshall, saying, “These are the things we want you to work on because these are directly applicable to whatever it is that we end up doing.” So all of the work that Chilton and his team have done is directly usable for a cryogenic stage. We’ve continued a lot of the work on producibility with tooling down at Michoud Assembly Facility where NASA was going to do the Constellation work. We’ve got a lot of tooling laid in there that is basically ready to go to start building hardware, and it is flexible tooling that can be adapted to build different diameters of structure. So you can design a rocket to several different diameters and then you do these architecture studies in order to get 50 metric tons to trans-lunar injection — for example, you have to have so much impulse, and it takes this size rocket to do that. So that sizes the diameter of the cryogenic propulsive stages that you want to have.
If NASA holds a competition to build a heavy-lift rocket, will Boeing contend for the job?
Of course we’ll compete, absolutely we’ll compete. But we shouldn’t have to. We already competed.
You have other work in the pipeline, though, with CST-100 under a second round of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awards.
Under CCDev we laid out a plan that would get us to preliminary design review and on the way towards critical design review, but not all the way, within the timeframe they’re talking about for this NASA Space Act agreement.
What CST-100 work is planned for this year?
Our plan would be to have tests, additional drop tests on the airbags. We did a firing of our abort engine on CCDev 1 and we’re going to change the design of that engine so it’s lighter and then we’ll fire it again. We changed abort systems in the middle of the agreement so we had to replan. We hadn’t actually selected one, but we had a baseline. It was a system that really wasn’t developed yet, so it was more development risk. So we selected the engine that Rocketdyne has.
What’s the schedule for flight testing the CST-100?
The first uncrewed test flight would be in 2014. The second test flight would be an ascent abort test, so we would exercise the abort system at maximum dynamic pressure. A final test late on our current schedule is a crewed flight test, in late 2015. That test will have two pilots, and the baseline right now is that they be Boeing test pilots. And we’ll have our pad abort test in late 2013. We haven’t picked a location yet; we’re looking at different locations right now to figure out where the most cost-effective place would be.
What is your per-seat price estimate for the seven-person capsule?
We haven’t made public any per-seat prices for the operations yet. That’s also going to be a function of the launch vehicle. We have to work through all of our operational scenarios.
With NASA planning to continue development of Constellation’s Orion crew capsule for deep space missions, do you see the government-owned spacecraft competing with CST-100 and other commercial vehicles?
If the two paths continue in parallel, Orion wouldn’t be cost-competitive with a commercial vehicle. The risk would be in if the two paths for some reason didn’t continue in parallel and you gave a preference to Orion because that’s the government’s program for deep space exploration and so they would want to keep it going. That would be the thing that we would be concerned about.