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

BUDGET 2015: Ukraine Crisis Not Disrupting Russian Soyuz Flights, NASA Admin Says

Astronauts are expected to leave the International Space Station on schedule next week, and training continues on the ground, despite a crisis in Ukraine that is disrupting American and Russian relations, NASA’s administrator said on Tuesday (March 4).

Russian troops moved into the Crimea region of Ukraine last week, triggering condemnation from the United States and other International Space Station partners. At least one ISS participant, Canada, has removed its ambassador from Moscow.

“Everything is nominal right now in our relationship with the Russians. We continue to monitor the situation,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a conference call with reporters.

“The safety of our crews and our assets that has not changed. Safety is the No. 1 of NASA’s core values, so we are constantly doing contingency planning on the International Space Station for emergencies that might arise,” Bolden added, citing the emergency ammonia pump replacement in December as one such example.

“Those are the kinds of things we are always planning for, and in terms of the situation on the ground, we will go into contingency planning for that as the situation dictates. But right now, we don’t see any reason to do so,” he said.

Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Russian Soyuz is currently the only way that NASA can bring humans to the space station, although the agency is developing a commercial crew program to start lifting off astronauts from American soil again in 2017. The Soyuz missions depart and return from Kazakhstan under an agreement Russia has with the former Soviet Union republic.

Expedition 38 (which includes Russia’s Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, and NASA’s Michael Hopkins) is expected to depart the space station March 10. Expedition 39 is scheduled to head to the ISS March 25.

Bolden avoided questions asking what sorts of contingencies NASA would consider if tensions escalated, saying the agency would evaluate that situation if it occurs.

The administrator delivered his comments as part of a conference call concerning NASA’s 2015 budget, which would increase funding for the commercial crew program to $848.3 million, up 21% from a planned $696 million in 2014. Proposals are currently being evaluated and little was said about CCP, except to note that the amount of funding would allow the program to have “competition”, implying multiple companies will be funded.

 Russian Soyuz spacecraft, docked to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.
Russian Soyuz spacecraft, docked to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

Russia was a key partner in the station’s construction from the beginning. It launched the first component (Zarya) to space in 1998, and the station today includes several other Russian modules and docking ports. Additionally, the Russians perform their own spacewalks using the Russian Orlan spacesuit. Cosmonauts also form a large percentage of ISS crews under space station utilization agreements.

NASA collaborations with Russia in space began with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, and expanded under an agreement that saw several shuttles dock with the Mir space station (and NASA astronauts train in Russia) in the 1990s.

Mars Space Colony Rockets Could Be Ready In 10 Years: SpaceX CEO

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is a huge fan of Mars exploration and Mars colonies, and in a new interview he says a launch system to send people to the Red Planet could be available in 10 to 12 years. Requirements: it has to be big, and it has to be launched frequently to send millions of people and tons of cargo spaceward.

“We need to develop a much larger vehicle, which would be a sort of Mars colonial transport system, and this would be, we’re talking about rockets on a bigger scale than has ever been done before. It will make the Apollo moon rocket look small,” said Musk in a recent CBS interview, referring to the 363-foot (110-meter) behemoth that was the Saturn V.

In the short term, Musk said he is focused on making a crew transportation system that will reduce NASA’s reliance on Soyuz vehicles to bring astronauts into space (a situation that arose in 2011 after the agency retired the shuttle.) SpaceX is one of three companies funded by NASA to develop a spacecraft able to launch people (with the other two being Boeing and Sierra Nevada.)

Musk said SpaceX’s Dragon should be ready to do that in a couple of years. Meanwhile, there are abort tests to perform and other steps this year to get the spacecraft ready for that milestone.

Check out the entire Musk interview on the CBS website. Naturally, he doesn’t have the only vision for human Mars exploration out there, as private ventures Mars One and Inspiration Mars demonstrate.

Artist's concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA