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CST-100 approaching ISS
If Boeing can secure NASA funding to support its development, the CST-100 could be ready to transport NASA astronauts—and the occasional space tourist—to the ISS as soon as 2015. (credit: Boeing)

Space tourism and space policy

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While the definition of what is a “NewSpace” company can be difficult to nail down, few would argue that any definition would include Boeing. The aerospace giant, if anything, seems more like the antithesis of the prototypical scrappy NewSpace startup. With revenues of over $15 billion and net income of almost $800 million in just the last quarter, its financial resources dwarf even the most well-heeled startup. While space accounts for only a small portion of those financials, Boeing is a key player in many major military and civil space programs, in particular the shuttle, ISS, and Constellation.

Yet, when it comes to the nascent field of commercial human spaceflight, Boeing looks very much like a NewSpace company. The company is working on a concept for an orbital crew capsule called the CST-100, supported by a NASA award and in partnership with Bigelow Aerospace, a company with plans for a series of orbital habitats. Last week Boeing announced an agreement with another NewSpace company, Space Adventures, to market seats on CST-100 missions. While these initiatives demonstrate Boeing’s interest in this emerging market, they may be just as important for shoring up support for one key element of NASA’s planned new direction in human spaceflight.

A “terribly exciting” deal

The agreement between Boeing and Space Adventures, announced Wednesday at a press conference in a Boeing office in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington, DC, established the broad outlines of how the two companies would work together, although many details have yet to be worked out. The general concept, though, involves Space Adventures selling seats on CST-100 missions flying as part of any future NASA commercial crew transportation program, in much the same way that Space Adventures has sold seats on Soyuz taxi flights to the ISS.

“We’re ready now to begin talking with prospective customers,” Anderson said, even though the first flights won’t take place before 2015.

John Elbon, vice president and program manager for commercial crew transportation systems at Boeing, described how such flights might work. The CST-100 is designed to ferry up to seven people to the ISS, but current NASA ISS crew rotation models require only four seats. The extra capacity could be used to transport cargo, or they could be sold through Space Adventures for spaceflight participants—aka “space tourists”—for trips to the ISS.

“I think we’re uniquely positioned to deliver safe and reliable transportation that is also affordable in a commercial environment,” Elbon said. “I think it is also a win-win for NASA. Being able to sell the extra seats, for example, that we’ll have when we take NASA astronauts to the space station will reduce the cost to NASA for those missions. It also allow us to help them in their desire to promote space commerce to low Earth orbit.”

Such flights would begin in 2015 under Boeing’s current plans for the development of the CST-100. How much a seat would cost hasn’t been decided, but Space Adventures chairman Eric Anderson said that the price would be “competitive” with current prices for Soyuz flights to the ISS. Those prices depend on factors such as the length of the stay and other mission plans, something that would also be true for any future commercial flight opportunities. He did say Space Adventures’s last ISS client, Guy Laliberté, who flew to the station nearly a year ago, paid “around $40 million” for the flight.

Although it’s still several years before the first flight opportunity, Anderson said Space Adventures would start marketing the flights now. “We’re ready now to begin talking with prospective customers,” he said, keeping them informed of developments and opportunities as the program develops and helping them plan any special needs they might have for their missions. “The earlier we can start talking to customers, the better.”

(Last week’s announcement came a week after a personal milestone for Anderson: Intentional Software, a company founded by two-time Space Adventures client Charles Simonyi, announced the hiring of Anderson as its new president. At last week’s press conference, though, Anderson said he would still have a role with Space Adventures as its chairman. “I’m still very much involved in Space Adventures,” he said.)

“Together we can open space to more people and expand a new market,” Shaw said, “and I find that terribly exciting.”

How much of a market there would be for such seats was an area where there were at least some minor differences of opinion between Boeing and Space Adventures. “This is an uncertain market. It’s a new thing,” Elbon said. Anderson, though, approached it differently: “It’s not that the market itself is uncertain, I think we’re not sure how big it is.” He added that “every flight opportunity that we have had the opportunity to sell, we have sold,” and thus the market right now was not constrained by the number of people but instead by the number of available seats.

“We believe that we will be able to bring the spaceflight experience to a greater number of people than we would have before,” Anderson added. Over time, he said, the market would grow to a “very significant” size, helping amortize the operational costs of such flights and thus giving NASA a better deal than if the flights were operated by or solely for the government.

While the baseline approach calls for selling extra seats to the ISS, the companies didn’t rule out other missions, such as dedicated flights to the ISS or elsewhere. “Dedicated missions would certainly be a possibility,” Elbon said. The agreement, though, doesn’t cover flights to Bigelow Aerospace facilities; Bigelow is already a partner with Boeing on the CST-100 development.

Like Anderson, Brewster Shaw, a former astronaut and current vice president and general manager of Boeing's Space Exploration division, sees a bright future for commercial human spaceflight under this agreement. “Together we can open space to more people and expand a new market,” he said, “and I find that terribly exciting.”

Development of the CST-100

While Boeing and Space Adventures worked out its agreement to market CST-100 seats or flights, Boeing has been busy working on the early development of the crew capsule. Boeing is one of five companies that received NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awards earlier this year, and has been working on elements of the design in cooperation with Bigelow Aerospace (see “Building a foundation for commercial crew”, The Space Review, September 7, 2010).

Elbon said that under its CCDev work the company has built a pressure test article, testing of which was slated to begin as soon as last weekend at Bigelow’s facilities in Las Vegas. The company also started drop tests of the capsule last week, while a simulator was testing rendezvous and docking operations with the space station. Elbon said Boeing planned a system design review for early next month.

Those efforts, he said, “demonstrate the progress we’re making with a relatively small amount of funding on CCDev.” As of last week the company had achieved about two-thirds of the 36 milestones on its CCDev award, and thus had received about two-thirds of the $18 million under its Space Act agreement.

Should NASA fund future development of the CST-100, Elbon said that the company planned four tests flights of the vehicle requiring three launches. The first, and the one not requiring a launch vehicle, would be a pad abort test. That would be followed by a suborbital “max Q” test of the abort system, and then an orbital uncrewed flight test, before a final crewed orbit test flight. That last flight, he said, might use Boeing test pilots instead of NASA astronauts.

“If we had to do this with Boeing investment only,” Elbon said, “we wouldn’t be able to close the business case.”

CST-100 is designed for relatively short free-flight operations: Elbon said that the capsule would be able to support a crew for only about 48 hours. The capsule would dock with the ISS or another facility likely the same day as launch, and reenter shortly after undocking. It is designed to remain docked to a station for up to six months. The capsule will land on airbags on land, as opposed to splashing down; Elbon said White Sands in New Mexico is currently baselined as the landing site.

Once in operations, each CST-100 is designed to fly at least ten times. Turnaround time between flights, Elbon estimated, would be about six months, with replacement of the capsule’s heat shield the biggest aspect of the servicing between flights. He added that right now Boeing hasn’t determined how many capsules it anticipates building. “How many we build will be a function of the traffic model,” he said. Two capsules would be built during development that would be refurbished for operations.

Closing the business case with NASA

No capsules will be built, though, unless Boeing can secure funding. The company made it clear that it was looking to NASA to provide such funding through a follow-on to CCDev. “If we had to do this with Boeing investment only,” Elbon said, “we wouldn’t be able to close the business case.” The space agency, he said, closes the business case by providing not just development funding but a customer base upon which Boeing can add other, commercial customers, such as Bigelow Aerospace and Space Adventures.

That thrusts Boeing into the heart of a debate about commercial crew development in Washington. Some opponents of the administration’s original budget proposal, which called for $6 billion in investment in commercial crew development over the next five years, state that they are not opposed to NASA purchasing commercial crew transportation services per se, but are skeptical of using government funding to develop those systems, particularly when there’s uncertainty about whether there are other markets beyond ISS crew transfer that could be served by such vehicles.

However, both Elbon and Anderson rejected the argument that, because Boeing’s business plan required government funding, the program was thus somehow not commercial. “It becomes a very good deal for the US taxpayer” by having multiple customer bases that spread out the development and operational costs of such a system, Anderson said, later citing historical examples such as airmail supporting the early aviation industry. “I think the argument that if it’s not purely funded and purely financed by private industry that there’s no market, I think that is, with all due respect, hogwash.”

Interestingly, NASA may need Boeing’s participation to win funding for commercial crew development as much as Boeing needs NASA funding to develop the CST-100. The participation of Boeing and another CCDev awardee, United Launch Alliance, which manufactures the Atlas and Delta launch vehicles, blunts another line of criticism about the program, that it relies on relatively untried companies, especially SpaceX. The Washington Post reported Sunday that the Senate agreed to provide some funding for commercial crew, albeit at a lower level than the administration’s request, “only after Boeing gave congressional staffers a detailed presentation about its own space plans”, according to unnamed participants in the discussions.

The House version of the NASA authorization bill, by comparison, provides far less funding for commercial crew than even the Senate version, which could jeopardize Boeing’s plans to have a vehicle ready by 2015. “It isn’t a matter of whether the business case would close, I think it’s a matter of what would happen to our schedule,” Elbon said. “Clearly, that would cause us to slow down quite a bit.”

“I think the argument that if it’s not purely funded and purely financed by private industry that there’s no market, I think that is, with all due respect, hogwash,” said Anderson.

Last week’s press conference, then, seemed intended to demonstrate to skeptical members of Congress that there were markets beyond NASA that vehicles like the CST-100 could serve and thus win support for the higher funding levels in the Senate version of the legislation. Elbon, though, denied that the timing of the press conference was linked to the ongoing debate about the House bill in particular, which the full House has yet to take up. The timing, he said, was linked to the completion of the agreement with Space Adventures and thus coincidental to the debate, “although maybe it will turn out to be a fortuitous situation.”

While not explicitly saying as much, Elbon in his comments all but endorsed the Senate’s version of the NASA authorization bill with what he called “a very balanced approach to the exploration program.” That includes not just commercial crew funding but also extension of the ISS to at least 2020, continued work on Orion for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit, and immediate work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV), all key provisions of the Senate bill. “We don’t see a lot of new technology on the horizon that would make that development [of an HLV] faster or less expensive,” he said in explaining why Boeing disagreed with the administration, which sought to spend the next five years doing HLV technology work before proceeding with vehicle development.

Ironically, Boeing could get what its looking for in terms of funding for commercial crew development, yet still have Space Adventures shut out of plans to market additional seats on those planned taxi flights to the station. Some in NASA are advocating something of a “rental car” model for commercial crew transportation: rather than buying seats on a commercially-operated vehicle to take astronauts to and from the station, the agency would instead lease the vehicle and operate it itself. Aviation Week reported last week that chief astronaut Peggy Whitson said that there is “definitely a preference” for the leasing approach within the astronaut corps; NASA administrator Charles Bolden has also suggested that approach in comments earlier this year. It’s unclear if commercially-owned, yet NASA-operated, vehicles could sell extra seats to commercial customers.

The agreement, though, does create a new opportunity for private citizens, albeit wealthy ones, to fly in space, something Boeing’s Shaw said he wanted to encourage. Since the beginning of the Space Age, he noted, a little over 500 people have made it to orbit. “That’s not enough. We want to see many more people have that opportunity.”