Six years after the last flight of Atlantis a replacement for the Space Shuttle is almost ready to launch
How Boeing's Starliner is getting ready to rocket the United States back into manned space flight
For the present, the Boeing Starliner must live in the shadow of the past.
Towering over the anonymous building where the space capsule is being built, is the massive bulk of Nasa’s Vehicle Assembly Building, once home to the mighty Saturn V, the rocket which took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon.
It is nearly 50 years since Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon. As significant is that it is now six years and one month since the United States last flew a man into space.
The final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, on July 8, 2011, marked a temporary end to America’s manned space programme.
True, US astronauts still live and work on the International Space Station, but they must ride as passengers inside a Russian Soyuz capsule.
The Soyuz is hangover from the old Soviet Union’s space programme, but a Russian round trip ticket to the ISS now comes with an $81 million price tag.
It is not so much paying for the world’s most expensive taxi ride that hurts American pride, but that the world’s greatest space exploration programme is now dependent on its former Cold War rival to get men into orbit.
But not for much longer.
If all goes well, American will send men into space within a year. The astronauts will travel in ships that have a distinctly retro appearance. A cone shaped capsule at top a giant rocket, which will land suspended underneath parachutes.
It’s a scenario familiar since John Glenn became the first American to orbit the planet in February 1962, and feels at first like a regression from the era of the Space Shuttle, a reusable spacecraft that landed like a conventional aircraft.
But, says Chris Ferguson, Boeing’s director of Starliner crew and mission systems, appearances can be deceptive.
“We’ll provide safe service back and forth to the space station for up to five astronauts at one time. They’ll launch, within 24 hours they’ll get to the International Space Station, they’ll stay there for up to six months and then they’ll return to one of five western United States landing spots within six hours of undocking.
“So the idea is that it’s safe, effective and hopefully more affordable than its predecessor.”
That predecessor is something he knew well. Ferguson was commander of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final flight, his third mission for Nasa.
He is speaking after a tour of the Starliner assembly building, once known as Orbiter Processing Facility-3 during its previous incarnation in the Space Shuttle programme.
It was here that Atlantis and the rest of the shuttle fleet were maintained and readied for flight. Today OPF-3, scrubbed and swept clean like an operating theatre, is a quiet hive of activity as teams work on what will be a fleet of three Starliners, each designed to make up to ten flights to the ISS.
This month saw a milestone, as the top and bottom of the first capsule were joined together. This is the first Spaceliner; it will go into space unmanned. The first manned mission is projected for next summer, with the first mission to the ISS in December, riding on an Atlas V rocket, another Boeing collaboration with Lockheed Martin
To use its full name. the Crew Space Transportation 100 Spaceliner marks a departure for Nasa, which for the first time has contracted its manned spacecraft to the private sector as part of its Commercial Crew Programme. Boeing is in competition with SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, in the race to put Americans back in space.
SpaceX, which has its own launch area on another part of the Kennedy Space Centre and a mission control just off the base, is developing a crewed version of the Dragon space craft which has successfully flown unmanned supply missions for Nasa to the ISS, including most recently, the winning experiment by teenager Alia Al Mansoori for the UAE’s Genes in Space competition.
Dragon’s crewed capsule also promises to take off in 2018, and making next year remarkable for the start of commercial rivalry in manned spaceflight. Whereas the USA and the Soviet Union once vied for supremacy in space, it is now the free market.
“The Starliner is a commercial system to get astronauts back and forth to the international space station,” explains Ferguson.
“Unlike previous programmes which it replaced, where government managed the transportation, now commercial companies will manage the transportation and government will lease the service,”
“We are a lot closer today than we were a few years ago to returning Americans back from the Kennedy Space centre and return Americans to orbit from an American launch site with an American product. So you can imagine there is a lot of national pride in this.”
Privately, many in the space industry will admit that the Space Shuttle was a blind alley in terms of progress. Despite the claims that it was reusable, it required many millions of dollars to rehabilitate each vehicle after every mission, and took the lives of 14 American astronauts in the Columbia and Challenger disasters.
But it’s the bottom line where the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon 2 make sense. The shuttle programme, Ferguson points out, cost the US taxpayer somewhere between US$35 and $40 billion to develop and then another $3 bn to operate.
Boeing’s contract with Nasa, which includes all the development, plus the first two missions and then six return flights to the ISS, seals the deal at $2.4 billion in 2011 prices.
“That’s an order of magnitude cheaper,” says Ferguson. “It’s good value for the taxpayer.”
And while the Starliner may superficially resemble the old Apollo capsules, its design reflects 40 years of technological advances. It is not just that the ship is reusable or touches down on land using giant airbags. “We started with that shape, says Ferguson, “but truthfully it’s a completely different vehicle, with a different design.”
The old Apollo capsule had a diameter of just under four metres. The Starliner is nearly five metres. Whereas the Apollo ships were jam packed with equipment, the Starliner, whose name is also a nod to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet, reflects just how much smaller computers and electronics have become in four decades.
The Boeing craft will be one of the most spacious in the history of manned spaceflight, its crew fitted with new lightweight "Boeing blue" suits that resemble something from the set of a Ridley Scott movie and even feature touchscreen friendly gloves and boots designed with Reebok.
The space inside the Starliner is also the key to its economic viability. It has a crew of four, but can take five seats, and in some configurations, seven. Pretty much anyone who meets certain physical requirements can get into space as a passenger.
Initially, Boeing is tied directly to missions to the ISS, which is currently funded until 2024, but with expectation that it will continue until 2028, at which point the space station will be 30 years old.
“We’ve got about 10 years to cut our teeth, says Ferguson. “Getting people back and forth safely.”
He has no doubt a replacement will be found for the ISS. “There will be a destination in space, whether it will be used for tourism or a manufacturer or…a capability for a country that has not enjoyed any other than a short glimpse of space to spend months at time up there.”
A passenger seat on the Starliner, or even the Dragon 2, will still come at a price, of course, but it is one that many governments and commercial organisations may decide is affordable. Space tourism is another possibility, as are small manufacturing space stations that will use zero gravity for areas that are difficult on Earth, for example new advanced medical technologies that 3D print human organs, whose fragile cell structures will be easier to build in orbit.
What lies beyond the Starliner? The capsule is not designed to reach outside low Earth orbit and into true outer space. But it should help humanity to get there. Nasa is already developing its Orion spacecraft with the possibility of taking humans on missions that range from Mars and the Moon to capturing an asteroid.
To achieve this, Boeing is also working with Nasa on the Space Launch System, billed as the most power rocket ever made, to be assembled at same the Vehicle Assembly Building used for the Saturn V and just a few hundred metres from where the Starliner is being built.
One possibility for such deep space missions is that the new ships needed to reach Mars or establish a permanent Moon base will be assembled in low orbit by astronauts on the Starliner and components lifted by the SLS. As such, they could be designed without ever needing to land back on Earth or face the heat of re-entry.
“The model, ten to 20 years in the future, could be that commercial companies take the cargo and material and people up to lower earth orbit to outfit an expedition that would go someplace else, says Ferguson. “Like the Fed-Ex of lower earth orbit.”