Boeing is set to be the first private company to receive a formal order to fly NASA crewmembers to the International Space Station. Given the vicissitudes of spaceflight development, however, its competitor SpaceX could wind up as first to serve the new market.

With Sierra Nevada Corp.’s bid protest in the hotly contested commercial-crew competition rejected, the two winners—and their NASA customer—are opening up about how they will meet the U.S. space agency’s plan to cede low-Earth-orbit operations to commercial operators while it moves on to a “proving ground” at the Moon for eventual human travel to Mars.

Some details of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program remain hidden behind a proprietary curtain. But the agency says an “apples-to-apples” average puts the cost per seat of a U.S. commercial flight to the ISS at $58 million, $18 million less than the cost of a seat on Russia’s Soyuz capsule under NASA’s latest contract with the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

That figure apparently is based on two missions each to the space station, the minimum under the $6.8 billion CCtCap award announced last September—for as many as six missions each—and confirmed Jan. 5 with the Government Accountability Office’s dismissal of the Sierra Nevada protest (AW&ST Sept. 22, 2014, p. 24; Jan. 12, p. 57). A redacted version of the GAO decision released Jan. 20 puts the total cost of CCtCap at $4.8 billion, suggesting the watchdog agency used the minimum number of missions in calculating the bids entered by the three companies.

For that $58 million per seat, NASA will be able to fly four crew to and from the ISS in the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Dragon, plus some high-value cargo. Like the Russian Soyuz, the vehicles will be able to remain at the space station for six month to serve as lifeboats for the crews they carry.

“When Boeing and SpaceX are flying our four crews, the International Space Station crew will be able to double the amount of science it is able to do during a crew week,” says Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. “Right now about 40 hr. a week [are] dedicated to science and research. [When] SpaceX and Boeing are flying our four crew, that amount can go up to 80 hr. a week.”

The larger crew vehicles will permit the addition of a seventh crewmember to the station complement, and give the station partnership needed redundancy with the three-seat Soyuz. While the two private vehicles will give the U.S. its first domestic route to space for crews since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, the Soyuz will continue to fly and crews probably will continue to use all three vehicles regardless of their nationality, particularly in an emergency (AW&ST Oct. 6, 2014, p. 20).

“I can’t answer for Roscosmos, but I think if you were to talk to them, they’ve been involved with us all along,” says Administrator Charles Bolden, who keynoted a commercial crew kickoff event at Johnson Space Center, where NASA will train the station astronauts who use the new commercial vehicles. “They understand the critical importance of having redundancy in getting crew to orbit. If you ask me I think they’re going to be perfectly happy to get crews to orbit on a number of different vehicles. . . . Our intent is to fly mixed crews.”

Both companies passed their initial certification baseline reviews in December, which allows them to receive initial payouts to continue the development work they have been conducting with a combination of public and private funds under earlier Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Space Act agreements. Leuders declined to reveal how much each received with the milestone, and the total development figures—like the mission prices—were redacted from the GAO decision document.

“Overall, when we go through the whole development activities and all the funding that’s going to be there, we’ll have invested about $5 billion in development funding,” says Lueders, noting that the five-year effort will include one test flight each to the ISS with an unmanned test article, and one test flight each with a two-person crew of one astronaut each from NASA and the companies.

John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, says his company has also passed its ground segment critical design review, and has started building a crew-access tower at the Cape Canaveral AFS pad for the Atlas 5, which will launch the CST-100. The unmanned flight test is already on the manifest for the 74th Atlas 5 flight in April 2017, with the crewed flight on the 80th planned Atlas 5 flight in July 2017. The company intends to fly a pad abort test in February 2017, and hopes to be ready for operational missions by the end of 2017, he says.

NASA is likely to give Boeing authority to proceed (ATP) first, but stresses that does not mean the first operational mission will fly on the CST-100.

“The first mission we’re looking at ATPing right now is actually a Boeing mission, just because of the differences in lead time and the need to be able to start having services in the late 2017-18 timeframe,” says Lueders. “We know we’re going to have to start beginning the process to ATP our missions.”

SpaceX is already using a variant of the Dragon capsule to deliver supplies to the ISS and return scientific samples and equipment in need of repair and analysis to water landings in the Pacific. From the beginning, the cargo Dragon was built with conversion to a crew variant in mind. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, says the company has just finished integrating the crew Dragon’s launch abort system, which may one day enable propulsive crew landings at Ellington Field in Houston, she notes.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has “largely completed” its first pad abort system for a test at Cape Canaveral “in the next month or so,” Shotwell says, and plans an inflight abort test later this year. The required unmanned flight test will come “later in 2016,” she says, with the flight with a two-person crew planned as early in 2017 as possible within the bounds of safety and reliability.

“Our crewed Dragon leverages the cargo capabilities.” says Shotwell. “However, we understand and we have been told that crew is totally different. So, there are a number of upgrades we have been working [on] for the past two years to ensure this crewed version of Dragon is as reliable as it can possibly be. Ultimately, we plan to be the most reliable spaceship flying crew ever.”

Later this year, NASA intends to select a small cadre from its astronaut corps to begin working with both companies, eventually downselecting to flight crewmembers for the first piloted test flights, says Ellen Ochoa, the Johnson Space Center director and a former astronaut.

Both spacecraft will be operated in what NASA calls the “rental car” mode. NASA astronauts and their international colleagues will operate the largely automated Boeing and SpaceX capsules from liftoff to docking and return to Earth, rather than follow a “taxi” mode in which a company astronaut would be responsible for the spacecraft.

Boeing has already reached agreements with the Johnson Space Center to train the astronauts in the use of the CST-100 from liftoff to splashdown. It will equip the space center training facilities with flight simulators. During missions it will team with NASA’s space station flight control teams to oversee the CST-100 in flight.

SpaceX is still formulating its training strategy. However, it plans to make use of both its control room at the company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, as well as facilities at Johnson to guide its missions, according to Shotwell. The approach is similar to the one SpaceX has used to launch five commercial resupply missions to the ISS under a separate contract.

Both companies intend to make their spacecraft reusable, with Boeing estimating 10 flights for each of its CST-100s and Shotwell less specific about the number of flights per Dragon vehicle. Both will use two planned docking ports that will require a substantial reconfiguration of the U.S. segment of the station, with a  goal of having at least one of them ready by the end of this year. The effort will require an estimated seven spacewalks and hardware deliveries on most of the five commercial resupply missions remaining this year.

“The thought process is that the commercial providers will probably bring at least a test vehicle to the ISS in the 2017 time frame, and we wanted some time to make sure we have the systems checked out and ready to go,” says Mike Suffredini, NASA’s ISS program manager.

The Boeing and SpaceX crew transports will be equipped with NASA/Boeing Docking System Block 1 hardware to be able to park using the new ports at the forward- and space-facing ports of the U. S. Harmony pressurized node, which links the U.S. Destiny, European Columbus and Japanese Kibo research modules.

New International Docking Adapters, also developed by NASA and Boeing to permit the spacecraft of any nation to join in space, are manifested for SpaceX ISS resupply missions currently scheduled to launch in mid-June and early December. The space agency is hopeful of advancing the December mission to November.

The Harmony forward port is currently equipped with pressurized mating adapter 2 (PMA), which served as docking hardware for NASA’s space shuttle. The identical pressurized mating adapter 3, currently attached to Tranquility’s port side, will be moved to the space-facing side of Harmony. Both of the PMAs will receive the new international docking adapters.

The Earth-facing ports of Harmony and the Unity pressurized node will be configured for the unpiloted commercial cargo capsules currently operated by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp.  The oldest piece of U.S. hardware at the ISS, Unity was launched in 1998 to link Destiny to the Russian Functional Cargo Block Zarya that reached orbit a month earlier.

Unity’s Earth-facing port is currently occupied by the U. S. Permanent Multipurpose Module, which will be moved to Tranquility’s forward port.

In the midst of the commercial crew and cargo docking port changes, ISS will also accommodate the late June arrival of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module aboard a SpaceX resupply mission. The 45-ft.-long inflatable compartment will be berthed at the Tranquility aft port for a two-year evaluation that could lead to commercial space stations after the planned 2024 ISS retirement date.

Those private stations would be served by CST-100, Dragon and perhaps the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, which remains in contention as a commercial cargo carrier for the ISS as well.

“The world of low Earth belongs to industry,” says Bolden. “It doesn’t belong to the government. It doesn’t belong to NASA at all. Ideally in 2024 or sometime shortly after that, when we’ve gotten all the juice out of the International Space Station that we can get and we no longer need it for the research to go to Mars, we’re going to take it apart and deorbit it. And at that time there will still be platforms up there . . . . A Bigelow module may be the next thing that begins to replace the International Space Station.” 


A version of this article appears in the February 2-15, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.