NASA sees low risk in Boeing capsule, but corporate commitment is uncertain
got high marks in the competition for an integrated commercial crew launch system with its CST-100 capsule, a bare-bones vehicle designed to reach the International Space Station on battery power after launch with an Atlas V.
In the just-completed Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) selection,gave the aerospace giant the largest share of the $1.1 billion in seed money available. But the $460 million award came with a warning that Boeing's corporate commitment to the project is weak, leaving “an increased risk of insufficient funding” over the life of the Space Act agreement.
Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier, who heads's human spaceflight mission directorate, discounted Boeing's low investment in his selection of the CST-100 for CCiCap funding.
“While this was only one of 13 goals, I did consider it,” he writes in his formal source-selection document. “However, Boeing met all of the other goals and had a strong technical design; therefore, I did not find the lack of significant corporate financial commitment to be a major discriminator in my assessment.”
Across the three companies selected—Boeing,. and —Gerstenmaier says he picked the CST-100 because it scored highest in “level of effectiveness” and “confidence” on its technical approach. “The Boeing [vehicle] is clearly what we would see in more of a traditional program, the kind of layout and the structure and the way things flow,” he tells Aviation Week.
The company passed the first of its 19 CCiCap milestones—integrated systems review (ISR)—at a three-day meeting in August. Covering the seven-seat capsule, Atlas V and mission operations on the ground and in space, the review closed some issues left open at preliminary design review (PDR) during the second round of NASA's Commercial Crew Development effort that preceded CCiCap.
“We still had some open trades that we had to go work,” says John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and commercial crew program manager. “We had some water landing modes that we were attacking because of its threat on weight, some power-system decisions that we needed to make. We took that time between PDR and the kickoff of CCiCap to go pound those issues flat, so when we got into CCiCap we could really go full force on final design release.”
Also included in the first milestone were the results of abort-engine hot-fire tests, wind-tunnel tests, parachute drops and tests of the air-bag system designed to cushion the capsule's nominal touchdown on dry land. With the ISR milestone complete, Mulholland says, the outer mold line of the capsule is frozen, and the program is on track to deliver its first flight-design hardware—the one-piece lower section of the capsule's aluminum pressure vessel—in “less than 20 months.” Boeing has rented the former space shuttle orbiter processing facility atas the assembly facility for the CST-100 (AW&ST Nov. 7, 2011, p. 34). First flight is scheduled by the end of 2016, and the company is looking for ways to advance that, Mulholland says.
As for the finding that the Boeing home office has not committed sufficient resources to the CST-100, Mulholland argues that “conservative” corporate accounting obscures the in-kind role played by engineers from other Boeing units, including commercial aircraft and those building military fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.
“Across the company, our business is delivering transportation platforms,” he says. “We bring a rigorous and robust process, because our company is not going to let these programs fail. One of the things that we always focus on is the old approach of 'test like you fly, and fly like you test,' so when we lay out a design and development program, it will look the same across all the portfolios.”
While proprietary financial information is redacted from the published versions of NASA's source-selection documents, Mulholland says his program's business case continues to close with the two flights per year to the ISS that NASA anticipated. Like other commercial-crew contenders, Boeing is also looking to stoke new markets in space tourism and alternate destinations such as the inflatable space habitats under development by Bigelow Aerospace.
“We'll close on two NASA flights alone, but we are also in a position of trying to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help the market emerge,” Mulholland says.