Boeing CST-100 Space Taxi Maiden Test Flight to ISS Expected Early 2017 – One on One Interview with Chris Ferguson, Last Shuttle Commander

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Boeing expects to launch the first unmanned test flight of their commercial CST-100 manned ‘space taxi’ in “early 2017,” said Chris Ferguson, commander of NASA’s final shuttle flight in an exclusive one-on-one interview with Universe Today for an inside look at Boeing’s space efforts. Ferguson is now spearheading Boeing’s human spaceflight capsule project as director of Crew and Mission Operations.

“The first unmanned orbital test flight is planned in January 2017 … and may go to the station,” Ferguson told me during a wide ranging, in depth discussion about a variety of human spaceflight topics and Boeing’s ambitious plans for their privately developed CST-100 human rated spaceship – with a little help from NASA.

Boeing has reserved a launch slot at Cape Canaveral with United Launch Alliance (ULA), but the details are not yet public.

If all goes well, the maiden CST-100 orbital test flight with humans would follow around mid-2017.

“The first manned test could happen by the end of summer 2017 with a two person crew,” he said.

“And we may go all the way to the space station.”

Boeing is among a trio of American aerospace firms, including SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp, vying to restore America’s capability to fly humans to Earth orbit and the space station by late 2017, using seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in a public/private partnership. The next round of contracts will be awarded by NASA about late summer 2014.

That’s a feat that America hasn’t accomplished in nearly three years.

“It’s been over 1000 days and counting since we landed [on STS-135],” Ferguson noted with some sadness as he checked the daily counter on his watch. He is a veteran of three space flights.

Boeing has selected Florida to be the base for its commercial crew program office. Image Credit: Boeing
Boeing CST-100 commercial crew capsule approaches the ISS in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

Since the shuttles retirement in July 2011 following touchdown of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the last shuttle flight (STS-135) with Ferguson in command, no American astronauts have launched to space from American soil on American rockets and spaceships.

The only ticket to the ISS and back has been aboard the Russian Soyuz capsule.

Chris and the Boeing team hope to change the situation soon. They are chomping at the bits to get Americas back into space from US soil and provide reliable and cost-effective US access to destinations in low Earth orbit like the ISS and the proposed private Bigelow space station.

Boeing wants to send its new private spaceship all the way to the space station starting on the very first unmanned and manned test flights currently slated for 2017, according to Ferguson.

“NASA wants us to provide [crew flight] services by November 2017,” said Ferguson, according to the terms of the CCP contact award.”

The CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing
The Boeing CST-100 crew capsule awaits liftoff aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral in this artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

The CST-100 will launch atop a man rated Atlas V rocket and carry a mix of cargo and up to seven crew members to the ISS.

“So both the first unmanned and manned test flight will be in 2017. The first unmanned orbital flight test is currently set for January 2017. The first manned test could be end of summer 2017,” he stated.

I asked Chris to outline the mission plans for both flights.

“Our first flight, the CST-100 Orbital Flight Test – is scheduled to be unmanned.”

“Originally it was just going to be an on orbital test of the systems, with perhaps a close approach to the space station. But we haven’t precluded our ability to dock.

“So if our systems mature as we anticipate then we may go all the way and actually dock at station. We’re not sure yet,” he said.

So I asked whether he thinks the CST-100 will also go dock at the ISS on the first manned test flight?

“Yes. Absolutely. We want go to all the way to the space station,” Ferguson emphatically told me.

“For the 1st manned test flight, we want to dock at the space station and maybe spend a couple weeks there.”

“SpaceX did it [docking]. So we think we can too.”

“The question is can we make the owners of the space station comfortable with what we are doing. That’s what it really comes down to.”

“As the next year progresses and the design matures and it becomes more refined and we understand our own capability, and NASA understands our capabilities as the space station program gets more involved – then I’m sure they will put the same rigor into our plan as they did into the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences plans.”

“When SpaceX and Orbital [wanted to] come up for the grapple [rather than just rendezvous], NASA asked ‘Are these guys ready?’ That’s what NASA will ask us.”

“And if we [Boeing] are ready, then we’ll go dock at the station with our CST-100.”

“And if we’re not ready, then we’ll wait another flight and go to the station the next time. It’s just that simple.”

“We looked at it and this is something we can do.”

“There are a lot of ways we have to make NASA and ourselves happy. But as a company we feel we can go do it,” Ferguson stated.

Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS. Credit: Boeing
Boeing CST-100 crew vehicle docks at the ISS. Credit: Boeing

So the future looks promising.

But the schedule depends entirely on NASA funding levels approved by Congress. And that vital funding has been rather short on supply. It has already caused significant delays to the start of the space taxi missions for all three companies contending for NASA’s commercial crew contracts because of the significant slashes to the agency’s CCP budget request, year after year.

In fact the schedule has slipped already 18 months to the right compared to barely a few years ago.

So I asked Chris to discuss the CCP funding cuts and resulting postponements – which significantly affected schedules for Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.

Here it is in a nutshell.

“No Bucks, No Buck Rogers,” explained Ferguson.

“The original plan was to conduct both the unmanned and manned CST-100 test flights in 2015.”

“Originally, we would have flown the unmanned orbital test in the summer of 2015. The crewed test would have been at the end of 2015.”

“So both flights are now a full year and a half later.” Ferguson confirmed.

“For the presidents [CCP] funding requests for the past few years of roughly about $800 million, they [Congress] only approved about half. It was significantly less than the request.”

Now at this very moment Congress is deliberating NASA’s Fiscal 2015 budget.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said he will beg Congress to approve full funding for the commercial crew program this year – on his hands and knees if necessary.

NASA’s final shuttle crew on STS-135 mission greets the media and shuttle workers during Atlantis rollover from the OPF-1 processing hanger to the VAB at KSC during May 2011.   From left: Rex Walheim, Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley and Sandra Magnus. The all veteran crew will delivered the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module (MPLM), science supplies, provisions and space parts to the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s final shuttle crew on STS-135 mission greets the media and shuttle workers during Atlantis rollover from the OPF-1 processing hanger to the VAB at KSC during May 2011. From left: Rex Walheim, Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley and Sandra Magnus. The all veteran crew will delivered the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module (MPLM), science supplies, provisions and space parts to the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Otherwise there will be further delays to the start of the space taxi missions. And the direct consequence is NASA would be forced to continue buying US astronaut rides from the Russians at $70 Million per seat. All against the backdrop of Russian actions in the Ukraine where deadly clashes potentially threaten US access to the ISS in a worst case scenario if the ongoing events spin even further out of control and the West ratchets up economic sanctions against Russia.

The CST-100 is designed to be a “simple ride up to and back from space,” Ferguson emphasized to me.

NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s 135th and final shuttle mission takes flight on July 8, 2011 at 11:29 a.m. from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS and the high frontier with Chris Ferguson as Space Shuttle Commander. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It is being designed at Boeing’s Houston Product Support Center in Texas.

In Part 2 of my interview, Chris Ferguson will discuss the details about the design, how and where the CST-100 capsule will be manufactured at a newly renovated, former space shuttle facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

STS-135 Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson (right) and Ken Kremer at emergency M-113 Tank Practice.  Chris brought a special public gift for science aboard the last shuttle mission. Chris and Ken discuss our mutual love of science in the weeks before Atlantis July 8 liftoff.  Credit: Ken Kremer
STS-135 Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson (right) and Ken Kremer (Universe Today) meet at emergency M-113 Tank Practice during crew pre-launch events at the Kennedy Space Center in the weeks before Atlantis July 8, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA: Reaches for New Heights – Greatest Hits Video

Video Caption: At NASA, we’ve been a little busy: landing on Mars, developing new human spacecraft, going to the space station, working with commercial partners, observing the Earth and the Sun, exploring our solar system and understanding our universe. And that’s not even everything.Credit: NASA

Check out this cool action packed video titled “NASA: Reaching for New Heights” – to see NASA’s ‘Greatest Hits’ from the past year

The 4 minute film is a compilation of NASA’s gamut of Robotic Science and Human Spaceflight achievements to explore and understand Planet Earth here at home and the heavens above- ranging from our Solar System and beyond to the Galaxy and the vast expanse of the Universe.

Image caption: Planets and Moons in perspective. Credit: NASA

The missions and programs featured include inspiringly beautiful imagery from : Curiosity, Landsat, Aquarius, GRACE, NuSTAR, GRAIL, Dawn at Asteroid Vesta, SDO, X-48C Amelia, Orion, SLS, Apollo, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, Boeing CST-100, Commercial Crew, Hurricane Sandy from the ISS, Robonaut and more !

And even more space exploration thrills are coming in 2013 !

Ken Kremer

IMG_3760a_SpaceX launch 22 May 2012

Image caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off on May 22, 2012 with Dragon cargo capsule from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station. The next launch is set for March 1, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer

X-37B – The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance

The United States Air Force’s second flight of the X-37B – is headed into extra innings. Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) this robotic mini space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Mar. 5, 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force has kept mum regarding details about the space plane’s mission – it has announced that the OTV-2 has exceeded its endurance limit of 270 days on orbit as of the end of November.

The OTV is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket. The space plane is protected within a fairing until it reaches orbit. After separation, the diminutive shuttle begins its mission.

OTV mission USA-226, as it is officially known, is by all accounts going smoothly and the spacecraft is reported to be in good health. The U.S. Air Force has not announced when OTV-2 will be directed to land.

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The fact that the space plane will continue to orbit beyond what its stated limits are highlights that the OTV has greater capabilities than what was officially announced. The first OTV flight launched in April of 2011 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is undoubtedly being more judicious with fuel stores on board the robotic spacecraft, allowing for a longer duration flight.

Much like NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the OTV has a payload bay that allows for payloads and experiments to be conducted on-orbit. What payloads the U.S. Air Force has had on either mission – remains a secret.

Boeing has announced that the X-37B could be modified to conduct crewed missions to and from orbit. Tentatively named the X-37C, this spacecraft would be roughly twice the size of its unmanned cousin. If this variant goes into service it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

OTV USA-226 launched on Mar. 5, 2011 and has helped prove out the mini space plane's design. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The X-37B has become a bit controversial of late. Members of the Chinese press have stated that the space plane raises concerns of an arms race in space. Xinhua News Agency and China Daily have expressed concern that the OTVs could be used to deliver weapons to orbit. The Pentagon has flatly denied these allegations. The clandestine nature of these flights have led to a wide variety of theories as to what the OTVs have been used to ferry to orbit.

Orion Spacecraft to Launch in 2014

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – NASA has announced its intention to launch an unmanned flight of the Orion Spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle – by 2014. This flight test will be added to the contract that the space agency has with aerospace firm Lockheed Martin. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV as it is more commonly known – will test out systems that will be employed on the Space Launch System (SLS). If successful, this will allow astronauts to travel beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) for the first time in over four decades.

“This flight test will provide invaluable data to support the deep space exploration missions this nation is embarking upon,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver.

The flight has been dubbed Exploration Flight Test or EFT-1 and will be comprised of two high-apogee orbits that will conclude with a high-energy reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules before it, the Orion MPCV will conduct a water landing.

The test mission will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida. It is designed to provide the space agency with vital flight data regarding how the vehicle handles re-entry and other performance issues.

The test flight will be comprised of two high-apogee orbits followed by a splash down. This flight will provide NASA with crucial information that could potentially lead to changes in the Orion spacecraft's design. Image Credit: NASA

“The entry part of the test will produce data needed to develop a spacecraft capable of surviving speeds greater than 20,000 mph and safely return astronauts from beyond Earth orbit,” said Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William
Gerstenmaier. “This test is very important to the detailed design process in terms of the data we expect to receive.”

Presumably the use of a Delta IV Heavy would allow NASA to accelerate its human exploration objectives at an accelerated rate. Since the flight will be unmanned, there is no need to man-rate the launch vehicle and given the current economic issues facing the United States, the use of so-called “legacy” hardware could ensure that costs are kept down.

The past year has seen the development of the Orion spacecraft proceed at an accelerated pace. Photo Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

NASA has also stated its intention to release competitive solicitations for design proposals for new, advanced liquid or solid boosters to be used on the SLS. Another contract that will be opened for competition will be for payload adaptors for both crewed as well as cargo missions.

The Orion spacecraft was originally part of the Constellation Program. Its design has since been modified – but its mission to one day fly astronauts to the Moon, Mars and beyond – remains. The EFT-1 test flight will allow technicians and NASA officials to better determine what further changes need to be made to best aid the completion of NASA’s exploration goals.

The EFT-1 test flight could pave the way for flights back to the Moon, to the planet Mars and to other destinations throughout the solar system. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Boeing To Use Shuttle Hangar for CST-100 Space Taxi

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – NASA hosted an event on Monday, Oct. 31, at 10 a.m. EDT at Kennedy Space Center’s Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) to announce a new partnership between NASA, Space Florida and Boeing. Space Florida in turn will lease OPF-3 to Boeing. Under the terms of this arrangement, Boeing will use OPF-3 to manufacture and test Boeing’s “space taxi” the CST-100.

Boeing will use OPF-3 as the firm’s commercial crew program office. The OPF, essentially a hangar, will be converted to construct Boeing’s CST-100 space capsule, which is currently being developed to deliver astronauts to low-Earth-orbit (LEO).

In the past Boeing has issued imagery that displayed its CST-100 launching from a variety of different launch vehicles which call Florida's Space Coast their home. Photo Credit: Boeing

This new partnership was developed following a Notice of Availability that the space agency issued at the beginning of this year. The notice was used to identify interest from industry for space processing and support facilities at Kennedy. With NASA’s fleet of orbiters being decommissioned, NASA was seeking ways to effectively use its existing facilities.

It is hoped that this, and similar partnerships will help create jobs in the region as well as to help the U.S. regain leadership in the global space economy.

Boeing's CST-100 is called a "space-taxi" and is being designed to carry both crew and cargo to both the International Space Station as well and other low-Earth-orbit destnations. Image Credit: Boeing

The CST-100 is currently proposed as a reusable spacecraft that is comprised of two parts – a crew module and service module. It is designed to house up to seven astronauts, but it can also be used to ferry both people and cargo to orbit.

With the space shuttle fleet retired, NASA is completely reliant on Russia for access to the International Space Station. Russia charges the space agency about $63 million a seat on its Soyuz spacecraft.

“Only Congress can determine when we will stop the investment of our nation’s tax dollars into the purchase of continued space transportation services from the Russians – and invest instead in the U.S. work force and commercial industry capabilities,” said Space Florida’s President Frank DiBello.

During the final launch of the shuttle era, Boeing had both a mock-up as well as this test article on display. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

NASA has worked to keep the public apprised about its efforts to open its doors to private space companies. The space agency held press conferences to announce both the Space Act Agreement (SAA) that NASA had entered into with Alliant Techsystems (ATK) and EADS Astrium concerning the Liberty launch vehicle, as well as the release of the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket (which was announced on the following day).

“Thanks so much John and John, I love what you have done with the place!” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver referring to OPF-3.

The CST-100 has been proposed as a means of transportation to other future destinations in low-Earth-orbit such as one of the inflatable space station's currently under development by Bigelow Aerospace. Image Credit: Boeing

Space Florida is the organization that works to maintain and cultivate the aerospace industry within the State of Florida. The purpose of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is to develop U.S. commercial crew space flight capabilities. It is hoped that they will one day allow the U.S. to achieve reliable, safe and cheap access not to just the space station – but other destinations in LEO as well.

“If we’re going to find a way to fund exploration beyond the vicinity of Earth, particularly in today’s fiscally-constrained environment – we’ve got to find a way to do the job of transporting crew to the International Space Station in a more affordable manner,” said Boeing’s John Elbon. “That’s one of the primary purposes of the commercial crew program – to provide affordable access to low-Earth-orbit so that we can use the International Space Station as the great laboratory that it is.”

Through an agreement with Space Florida, NASA will lease Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) to Boeing for its CST-100 space taxi. It is hoped that this and efforts like this one will eventually reduce the cost of sending crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA