Some six years after the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the last time, the US is set to return to human spaceflight from its own soil with commercial crew launch services to LEO. TIM ROBINSON reports from Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Inside a building right next door to the gigantic VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) that dominates the skyline on Florida’s Space Coast, there is a palpable sense of excitement at a facility building a spacecraft that will help the US get its space ‘mojo’ back. The building, formerly a Space Shuttle processing facility, is now home to Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner hardware development. In 2014, Boeing, along with SpaceX, was awarded a contract worth a potential $6.8bn by NASA to develop a capability to deliver and return up to seven astronauts or a mix of crew and cargo to the ISS - freeing Washington from paying for seats on Russia’s Soyuz rocket. 

First begun in 2010 by NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO), the agency received submissions from 36 companies, before Boeing and SpaceX were confirmed as the two chosen after whittling the field down from an original five. As well as safe and reliable crew transfer to the ISS, the commercial crew requirement also included the need for the spacecraft to stay docked to the ISS for extended periods of time as a ‘space lifeboat’ for astronauts.

A personal space odyssey

Former Shuttle Atlantis Commander, Chris Ferguson with the Boeing CST-100 simulator at KSC. 

Presiding over Boeing’s human spaceflight effort with the CST-100 is, appropriately enough, the last commander of the Shuttle Atlantis, astronaut Chris Ferguson, who is now Director of Crew and Mission Operations. As the last Commander of the last-ever Shuttle mission, Ferguson has thus a extremely personal stake in seeing the US return to having its own human spaceflight capability.

Three spacecraft are now in assembly at Boeng’s leased facility at KSC, with the first flight model to be used in a pad abort test in early 2018. A second will be used for an uncrewed and autonomous test flight in mid-2018, while the third will undergo environmental testing before being refurbished for the first crewed test flight with Boeing and NASA pilots, set for later in 2018.

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Six years after the retirement of the Shuttle, the US is on the cusp of being able to access space with not one, not two, not three, but perhaps even four human-rated spacecraft"

The CST-100 will be launched using an ULA (United Launch Alliance) Atlas V rocket from Pad 41 at KSC. In May, ULA had just taken ‘ownership’ of the Pad after it had undergone specific modifications to support human space launches. A white-coloured crew access arm on top of the 12-storey tower now provides access to the capsule, while ziplines allow astronauts to escape to safety in the event of an emergency. 

The view from the top of Pad 41 at KSC. The building in the near distance is the Vertical Assembly Facility where the Atlas V and CST-100 will be stacked.

With echoes of Apollo-era hardware, the CST-100 capsule features a friction-welded structure and a disposable service module skirt that is jettisoned on re-entry, with the capsule landing with parachutes. Unlike previous US manned capsule flights, the Starliner will touch down on land, with desert locations in the Western US earmarked as landing sites.

Ferguson notes that the Atlas V rocket should give passengers an acceptable 4G ride into space. Boeing’s goal is that the CST-100 should be able to be reflown for up to ten flights, with a six-month refurbishment period.

While there is a certain historical symmetry that it will be an Atlas V, the latest in an US rocket family that first put John Glenn in orbit in a Mercury capsule, Ferguson also explained that despite the clean-sheet design, CST-100 incorporated “so much heritage from Space Shuttle technology” - with decades of Boeing and its heritage companies' spaceflight experience going into it.

Flight deck and controls

The CST-100 flightdeck features two large vertical MFDs.

Inside Boeing’s leased facility at KSC is not only CST-100 hardware but also a flight deck simulator and capsule full-deck mock-up. Though the CST-100 may look externally like a '60s Apollo Command Module, inside it features the latest in avionics in a clean, functional layout. The left-hand pilot's station is dominated by two large vertically-orientated MFD displays. Small hand controls are included for manual control - but these are just for back-up says Ferguson. Boeing says that the entire flight, including launch, docking and re-entry will be autonomous. Docking with the ISS, for instance, will be automatic, although astronauts will still need to train for manual revision. In addition, while tablets and laptops mounted on seemingly every available space have become a frequent sight in ISS videos, the Starliner from the get-go has docking posts and holders for iPads or tablets, as well as WiFi for the crew.

Virtual reality training

Virtual reality will allow CST-100 crews to train together, even if physically separated. (Boeing) 

Another innovation that CST-100 will introduce is in virtual reality (VR) crew training. While space agencies have been investigating the use of virtual reality (VR) training for extra vehicular activity (EVA) and other tasks for a while now, Boeing’s Ferguson revealed that Starliner astronauts would be using VR to train together prior to launch. This, thanks to increased immersion, not only allows for high-fidelity and enhanced learning, but also means that individuals do not need to be in the same place and can train together even if hundreds or thousands of miles apart - massively increasing flexibility in training schedules - especially when commercial non-NASA passengers might be carried.

Interior

A full scale Starliner mock-up here at Boeing's KSC facility allows ergonomics and human factors be refined.

Designing a spacecraft from scratch has also allowed the company to leverage 21st century ergonomics research in designing the cabin interior - as well as use rapid prototyping to refine the design. Crew seats, for example, in the fullscale mock-up are 3D printed to allow for quick changes and adjustments based on feedback from Ferguson and NASA. 

Interestingly the CST-100 takes some design cues from research conducted by Boeing for its commercial airliner division, such as blue sky colours and the line of sight for passengers. The inference here is that, longer term, it might not just be astronauts visiting the ISS who make use of the Starliner.

While C3PO's baseline requirement is a space taxi to transport four ‘NASA-sponsored astronauts’ (plus cargo) the agreement also allows for a fifth seat to be added for commercial opportunities - with the full capacity seven astronauts if no cargo is carried.

The CST-100 thus has enough space allocated for a fifth non-astronaut ‘Space flight participant’ which could provide revenue opportunities. This could be a non-NASA scientist or industrial researcher, for example, or perhaps a foreign national from a country keen to exploit the prestige of space as a ‘sovereign astronaut’. It could also allow ‘space tourists’ of the Dennis Tito variety to visit the ISS.

Further in the future, it is notable that Bigelow Aerospace partnered with Boeing/Lockheed joint venture ULA in 2016 to launch an inflatable habitat into LEO in 2020 as a private space station. Could the Starliner one day be the orbital limo that drops passengers off at a ‘space hotel’?

Suit-up for space

The new Starliner suit draws on Ferguson and David Clark's extensive spacesuit experience. (Boeing) 

Boeing’s Chris Ferguson has also put his personal spaceflight experience to good use by helping, with the David Clark Company, design a new lightweight and flexible spacesuit to be worn by CST-100 astronauts on launch, ascent and re-entry. The new user-friendly ‘Boeing Blue’ suit features a soft helmet (with hard cranial insert) with zippers, as well as touch-sensitive screen friendly gloves.

Dragon 2 - not just for LEO

SpaceX's Dragon 2 will also transport astronauts and cargo to the ISS. (SpaceX)

The other company awarded the Crew Commercial Contract is, of course SpaceX, with its human-rated Dragon 2 capsule, which already transports cargo to the ISS and so far has flown ten resupply flights.

The human-rated version of Dragon, to be launched using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Blk 5 rocket uses a slightly different outer mould line the Dragon cargo ship and is a larger vehicle. It also includes landing/abort engines, landing legs and solar arrays. First revealed in 2014, the Dragon 2 underwent a launch pad abort test in 2015. SpaceX also intend that the Dragon 2 will return to land, rather than sea, but use it retrorockets to perform a soft landing, a la its Falcon first stages. However, a baseline sea recovery mode is also planned.

 

The latest renders of the Crew Dragon interior show 3 large screen displays. (SpaceX).

The first uncrewed orbital flight test of Dragon 2 is scheduled for March 2018, with a crewed test flight to follow in May 2018. However the uncrewed flight test, shifted from December this year, leads some observers to predict that a first crewed test flight will also slip

As might be expected from SpaceX and Elon Musk, Dragon 2 is not just designed to fly crew to the ISS or LEO. Earlier this year, he announced that two private individuals had signed up for a round-the-Moon flight in 2018 using the Crewed Dragon capsule. Details and a timeline of this are still scanty, but it might be reasonably assumed that a cislunar mission will follow a successful LEO test flight, rather than the other way around - pushing it to the latter part of next year.

The uncrewed version of Dragon 2 will also be the pathfinder for SpaceX’s ambitious programme of Mars exploration - with the company aiming to soft-land a Red Dragon on the planet in 2020.

Summary

Atlantis at rest. After a gap of seven years, an American spacecraft is set to launch US astronauts from US soil next year.

While it’s a myth to think of the US (with Juno, Cassini probes and Mars Rovers as well as private entrepreneurs boldly going) as a nation in decline with regard to space, there is no doubt that reliance on Russia’s Soyuz to thumb a lift (at a $70m+ per seat now - a hefty increase since $21m in 2008) for astronauts to the ISS has dented US pride and been a source of mild embarrassment to NASA and Washington. Yet six years after the retirement of the Shuttle, the US is on the cusp of being able to access space with not one, not two, not three, but perhaps even four human-rated spacecraft - (CST-100, Dragon, Orion and Blue Origin’s sub-orbital New Shepherd). Others are no doubt waiting in the wings. The scientific, engineering and economic possibilities of such an expansion in human access to space are therefore extremely exciting.

NASA’s commercial crew programme is also significant for another reason, in that it pits ‘New Space’ vs ‘Legacy Aerospace’ head-to-head in the most difficult challenge - launching and returning humans from orbit safely. Will it be the innovative, rule-breaking start-up with a charismatic founder in the form of Space X, or will it be, Boeing; tried and trusted, 101-year old company with the last US Shuttle commander in charge of this project, that in 2018, returns a US astronaut from US soil into space? The race is on.

Tim Robinson
14 July 2017