Boeing and its legacy companies have held lead roles on virtually every major U.S. human spaceflight endeavor since 1959, when a newly established NASA selected the prime contractor for Project Mercury, America’s first manned orbital spacecraft.

Fifty years after Mercury’s first orbital flight, Boeing remains deeply enmeshed in NASA’s human spaceflight program. The centerpiece of that program is the international space station (ISS), a $100 billion orbital outpost finally completed a year ago this month under a prime contract Boeing won in 1995.

Today, Boeing Space Exploration — a Houston-based division employing 3,000 people in Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana and Texas — is performing the sustaining engineering critical to keeping the space station up and running while also helping NASA develop cryogenic stages and avionics for a new heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) and angling for a novel contract to build a commercially operated crew capsule.

Overseeing this diverse set of initiatives is John Elbon, a 30-year Boeing veteran who ran the company’s commercial crew program before replacing astronaut Brewster Shaw last August as vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration.

Elbon, who joined Boeing right after earning his aerospace engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1982, has held management positions on every program that now makes up his portfolio. That background should come in handy as he sets out to manage the interplay between these increasingly intertwined efforts.

“NASA, the administration and Congress are lining up around the path forward. We’ve had a national debate for a couple of years about what that ought to be and although it’s not totally in alignment now, there’s a lot of alignment coming out around a plan that says, ‘We’ll use the space station.’ There’s a lot invested in it and we need to use it to get the science out,” Elbon said in a recent interview. “So use the space station [and] use commercial providers to provide cargo and crew to the space station. … That way it will be affordable so that there’s funding left in the NASA budget for NASA to focus on exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

Elbon discussed Boeing’s human spaceflight portfolio with Space News staff writer Dan Leone last month at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.


How much longer will Boeing remain the ISS prime contractor?

Our contract runs through 2015 and then hopefully NASA will extend that contract. But there’s potential it could be a competition. We’ll see.


Do you anticipate a broad field of competitors trying to replace Boeing as ISS prime at this point?

I don’t know what the field would be. I’m hopeful that we won’t have to cross that bridge. We have the expertise in-house to do this because we did the design for the space station. I think as long as we continue to perform and continue to work on affordability by introducing innovation and improvements that it will be in NASA’s interest to extend us.


How long can ISS safely remain in service?

Right now the baseline is through 2020 but we’re doing studies that would extend it to 2028. Space station systems were originally designed and qualified for a certain life on orbit and we’re doing the analysis required to say that those systems can operate safely for longer than they were originally certified. Whether or not the country will decide to do that is not the purpose of this study; this is just to show that from an engineering perspective it’s feasible.


Does this study explore any major changes to ISS operations, such as moving it to another orbit?

Our study is focused on the U.S. modules, but the international countries are also looking at their own hardware, and the idea would be to keep the station, as it currently is on orbit, together and operating. It doesn’t involve, at this point, any kind of repurposing of those assets. It’s focused on doing the work to determine that the space station could operate longer in its current operational scenario.


What’s the status of Boeing’s work on SLS?

SLS is approaching its systems definition review, moving towards a preliminary design review in December. NASA selected us as the provider of the core stages just at the end of last year. We’re currently in the process of definitizing the contract for that, and I would expect that will take through the end of the summer. In parallel with that, the Boeing team that had been working the avionics and the upper stage under Ares 1 contracts awarded in 2007 has switched over to SLS.


Appropriators in the House and Senate have proposed funding SLS at less than $1.5 billion in 2013. Is this enough to keep SLS on schedule for the 2017 unmanned test flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle?

The funding required for the cryogenic stages Boeing is building is only a portion of the total SLS funding. We’re currently in the process of going through with NASA what the funding levels will be on the stages, and what the schedule associated with that will be, and how much risk is in that schedule, based on the funding level. Until that settles down, it’s difficult to comment on whether the funding level, at the top line, is enough. From my perspective, the piece that is kind of new and needs to be developed and so is the critical path through the whole process is the cryogenic stages, as compared with the solid-rocket motors that are fairly well through their development.


How many Boeing people are working on SLS?

At the moment it’s about 350. Depending on what funding is made available and what schedule we agree on in the negotiations with NASA for the contract, there’s opportunity for that to increase. Perhaps double. The majority of those SLS employees are in Huntsville, Ala. We have a small team supporting in Houston, and also some support in Huntington Beach, Calif. And we’re beginning to put a small level of support in place at the Kennedy Space Center as well.


NASA and Lockheed Martin plan to conduct an unmanned test launch of the Orion crew capsule in 2014 using a Delta 4 rocket. If Orion can be flown on a Delta 4, why build SLS?

The Delta 4 heavy could put Orion into low Earth orbit, but certainly if we did that, it would only be a low Earth orbit transportation, only capable of things like taking crew to station. And as compared with commercial alternatives, it would be quite expensive. So we would have a capability to take people to low Earth orbit, to the international space station, but we wouldn’t have funding available to develop the capability for taking people beyond low Earth orbit, to cis-lunar space, to asteroids and eventually to the moons of Mars and Mars itself. A national capability for heavy lift is important.


What can NASA do with SLS besides launch Orion?

A lot of other things, such as launching large pieces of a complex that we would use to go Mars or other deep-space destinations. We could also lift large science payloads; you could put a Mars rover as big as a van on SLS. Large telescopes, certainly those kind of payloads could be lifted, too. There’s also potential for Defense Department  payloads.


Boeing recently submitted its bid for NASA funding to continue development of the CST-100 commercial crew capsule. Assuming you ultimately win a flight services contract, what launch vehicle will you use?

We will do a subsequent competition to select whatever launch vehicle we will use for the service missions. That’s the way that whole procurement process works. But the design we’re working on now is a CST-100 on an Atlas 5.


Besides providing a destination for commercial crew taxis, what role will ISS play in NASA’s human space exploration program during its remaining years?

The space station really is an incredible laboratory and it’s enabling a lot of science and a lot of discovery, but the other big thing for space station is to be a test bed for exploration. Things like an environmental control system that can take wastewater and turn it into potable water, or turn wastewater into oxygen and methane for rocket fuel. Those kinds of systems you can design and test on the ground, but they behave differently when they’re operating in zero gravity. So at the station, you have the opportunity to do long-term kind of testing on those systems that, once you go on deep-space exploration missions, to an asteroid or Mars, you need to have.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.