Boeing is among the firms developing a space taxi so NASA can buy rides for astronauts traveling to and from the international space station. Heading that effort is John Mulholland, who previously was Boeing’s space shuttle program manager.
Now vice president and program manager for Boeing Commercial Programs, Mulholland oversees development of the CST-100, a seven-person capsule that is designed to fly aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
In addition to NASA, Boeing has agreements with Space Adventures and Bigelow Aerospace, both interested in selling commercial orbital spaceflights.
Mulholland spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz at the recent International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M.
Boeing and other companies are working to bridge the gap in U.S. human spaceflight left by the shuttle’s retirement. How do you think this period of time will be viewed 20 years from now?
None of us wants to live through the gap, but when you look back on it historically, I think you’ll see a very aggressive and good policy that we’ve got, which is the utilization of the international space station and the decision to go back and explore beyond low Earth orbit. I think commercial transportation has its place. I think it’s going to be a good benefit to NASA. So I think when you look back, the suffering that we’re going through in this near term is going to be diminished.
Of all the companies that have received NASA funding for commercial crew development, Boeing has been the most outspoken that it needs government funding to continue. Can you clarify the firm’s position?
When you look at it, commercial human spaceflight is inarguably an immature market. I always compare the market to when we go out and develop a new commercial aircraft. The difference is the commercial aircraft is a very certain market. You’ve got commitments on tail numbers on airplane deliveries before you fully invest and go and build that airplane. This is a completely different market and it’s very immature, and so I think the government really did need to step up and set up the infrastructure that will allow commercial companies to be successful. The only certain market is two NASA flights a year to the international space station.
I liken it back to the Kelly Air Mail Act of 1925. The government did invest in that infrastructure and really helped establish that commercial airplane market. Hopefully, we’ll see that develop here.
We certainly are willing to invest, and are investing, but I think it would be very difficult if we weren’t selected for the option period to continue on with the development.
Do you mean beyond the current Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) contract?
Right now, we’re in the 21-month base period and NASA has several decisions to make. One is the acquisition plan — are they going to continue with the Space Act Agreements or go to Federal Acquisition Regulation-based contracts for the completion of that development? NASA also has the potential to down-select in the option period. Then you get into the services phase. We are counting on and hope to be selected for the option period, the continuation beyond the base period.
When would that pick up?
The base period goes through critical design review in May 2014. The optional period had a requirement that you go through all the way to an uncrewed and then a crewed flight test. That would complete the development phase. Everybody was required to submit a complete plan all the way through the two test flights. NASA only funded the base period, not the option period.
What’s it been like for Boeing, being such an established aerospace company, competing against leaner firms like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Sierra Nevada Corp.? Has this been a hard cultural shift?
From the top down, I’d say Boeing is extremely supportive of continuing with commercial crew, obviously within the constraints of what we see today with NASA paying the preponderance of the development. I think that’s really important. This is a market that we have really been a huge part of from day one. Every United States capsule that has carried humans into space has been a Boeing product, so this is not a market that Boeing wants to relinquish. We’re all in.
One of the exciting things besides just being in the middle of the development program is the facet of exploring other commercial service avenues like Space Adventures, Bigelow Aerospace and others. It brings a whole new twist to the market. It’s a lot of fun to work with those guys and see what their vision is. But with the uncertainly of that market, it’s really important for us to make sure that we can close the business case on two NASA flights a year alone.
It’s important for us and it’s important for NASA. For NASA, it gives them price certainty. It would be real easy for me to give them price numbers now that included 20 CST-100 launches a year. NASA has to use that pricing to establish their future budgets and so if we gave them wildly optimistic pricing and then the market didn’t emerge they would have a real budget challenge. So it was important for us to submit the business case that this actually could be at least minimally profitable at two launches a year.
Obviously if you had that manifest, you would get really efficient pricing in the refurbishment of the vehicles. The launch vehicle itself obviously is the major cost component.
Does United Launch Alliance give you a discount?
No, unfortunately. They’re prohibited from giving us a better deal than they give everyone else.
Can you say now whether the per-seat price for CST-100 flights is going to be less than the $62 million Russia will be charging NASA for rides on the Soyuz in 2014?
Yes, it is a lower price per seat than the Soyuz, absolutely.
How much less?
A lot less.
That’s about as far as I can go.
Does Boeing see the CST-100 as a future cargo carrier once the current contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are complete? Would you compete for that?
We’d have to look at it at the time. The CST-100 has been designed from day one for any combination of crew and cargo up to 1,300 kilograms so it is an autonomous flier. But obviously the team’s focus right now is just getting the crew version ready.
Each CST-100 flight to the space station will have three more seats than NASA needs. In addition, there is the possibility to produce more capsules to go to Bigelow’s stations. How big a deal could this program be for Boeing?
We’re really excited about Bigelow. It would allow other people and other countries to be spacefaring nations and increase the amount of research that could be done. With the Bigelow complex, you’d add four missions a year to support that.
We’ve got a great relationship with Space Adventures. I love the idea of flying people up to the international space station. It brings additional awareness to all the good things that are being done on the space station. You build advocacy and awareness. So we really hope to be able to partner with Space Adventures and NASA to fly customers in extra seats up to international space station.
If after 21 months NASA decides it doesn’t have the money or doesn’t pick up the option on Boeing’s contract, but things have firmed up with Bigelow, would Boeing go ahead with a test flight?
If NASA decided to cancel, obviously we would look hard at continuing and at what the business case is for continuing. This isn’t a market that we want to exit. It wouldn’t be a decision we would make today.
Would you fly?
Absolutely. I told [former astronaut and Boeing Commercial Crew Director] Chris Ferguson, who probably will be our first pilot, that his first job better be finding a co-pilot because until he does it’s me.