For the past seven years, American astronauts who need to get to the International Space Station have had only one option: Pay roughly $80 million to hitch a ride on a cramped Russian Soyuz rocket.
Now Boeing Co. and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are preparing to ferry Americans to space for the first time since the Space Shuttle program went dark in 2011. If all goes well during a flurry of testing over the coming months, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will carry two astronauts to orbit in November, followed by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in December. Those first manned flights by these companies would usher in the first-ever commercial taxi service to earth orbit in 2019, followed by a battle to tempt high-spending tourists to take a trip into space.
For SpaceX the stakes couldn’t be higher. The company’s first launch of 2018, a classified U.S. government mission dubbed “Zuma,” created a torrent of intrigue and wild conspiracy theories. The payload, a satellite built by Northrop Grumman, apparently crashed into the ocean on Jan. 7 despite a successful launch and first stage landing. Northrop and the Pentagon have so far refused to comment, while SpaceX released an extraordinary statement last week insisting its rocket “did everything correctly.”
The companies trying to put astronauts into space see it as a step towards a near-future in which space travel reaches beyond low-earth orbit. For Musk, proving that SpaceX can safely fly NASA personnel is an important step towards his ultimate goal of bringing human civilization to Mars. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has goals that are no less lofty than Musk: In speeches, he is fond of predicting that the first person to step foot on the Red Planet will get there in a Boeing rocket. Boeing’s roots in space are long and deep, from leading the Saturn rocket program in the 1960s to running the International Space Station.
The corporate space rivals also have dueling interests in tourism. SpaceX has said that it will fly paying sightseers around the moon in its Dragon shuttle once its crewed missions for NASA are operational. Boeing plans to market seats on its craft via Space Adventures, the firm that has helped wealthy civilians book rides to orbit on Russian craft.
Successfully launching demonstration missions in 2018 would also end America’s dependence on the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to reach the space station before NASA’s current arrangement runs out in 2019. And President Trump has expressed interest in returning to the moon. “It’s a point of national pride,” said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “You can’t be a space-faring country if you can’t send your machines and people into space. The Trump administration is emphasizing the idea of leadership. A country unable to send people into space on its own is not a leader.”
NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing combined contracts worth up to $6.8 billion to fly American astronauts to the space station in 2014, choosing two companies for the unique public-private partnership to assure safe, reliable and cost effective access to space and avoid the perils of one provider having a monopoly. Congress is set to receive an update Wednesday (January 17) on the progress of this “Commercial Crew” program. John Mulholland, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program, and Dr. Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability for SpaceX, are among those slated to testify.
The aggressive timeline this year, following delays building and testing new spacecraft by both companies, have already pushed the initial flights more than a year behind schedule. The U.S. Government Accountability Office warned in a May 2017 report that certifying the new vehicles to meet rigid safety guidelines to carry humans to space could easily slip into 2019. But when new crafts are being developed and human lives are potentially at risk, NASA, Boeing and SpaceX are all on the same page: better safe than sorry.
“Flying reliably and safely is more important than soon,” said Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew program. “Boeing and SpaceX have both done extensive testing in the face of a very stringent time frame. We want them to fly as fast as they can, understanding that when they fly they will be flying our nation’s crew members.”
The exterior of the Boeing capsule may look like a throwback to the Apollo era, when the Chicago-based company was a major NASA subcontractor, but the interior will be more reminiscent of Boeing’s most advanced jetliner, the 787 Dreamliner. It will be operated by touchscreen panels rather than dials, with astronauts searching tablets rather than paper manuals for detailed instructions.
The Starliner will take eight hours to reach the space station, Boeing’s John Mulholland said in an interview, rather than the two-day voyage that was typical for NASA’s shuttle voyages. And it will return to a western U.S. desert, cushioned by air bags and parachutes, rather than splash down in the ocean like its 1960s forebears.
Boeing is building three capsules: one to carry out the launch pad abort test this summer, a second for a dry run without crew, and a third for its first human mission. Mulholland said he expects to wrap up by mid-year tests of structural loads and propulsions systems on two already-built modules. While there’s a risk of costly retrofits that comes with building new craft before testing is completed, Boeing purposefully staggered the “major build sets” behind testing to give it time incorporate any changes.
Boeing is already studying how to expand its market beyond the NASA contract, whether it is spurring new destinations in space like Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable hotel. The Starliner could also provide a ride to space for countries that aren’t part of part of the current coalition supporting the International Space Station.
“The job, I think, for our team right now, is to start the initial flight,” Mulholland said. “That I believe has held back the emergence of other destinations, other human space transportation.”
Musk, who is also the chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., designed SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft from the beginning with the goal of one day carrying humans. The company, based in Hawthorne, California, has already made several supply runs to the International Space Station for NASA. The SpaceX Crew Dragon includes several changes, such as an emergency escape system, first tested in 2015, designed to carry astronauts to safety in the case of a launch failure. The company has six Crew Dragon modules in various stages of production and testing.
“SpaceX continues to target 2018 for the first demonstration missions with and without crew under NASA’s commercial crew program,” said Eva Behrend, a spokeswoman for SpaceX. “In 2017, significant progress was made toward the production, qualification and launch of Crew Dragon — one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built — and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”
Aesthetics are also top of mind. Here’s the marketing copy from the SpaceX website, which highlights the luxurious appeal of its spacecraft for future tourists:
Dragon was designed to be an enjoyable ride. With four windows, passengers can take in views of Earth, the Moon and the wider Solar System right from their seats, which are made from the highest-grade carbon fiber and Alcantara cloth.
Unlike the vintage Soyuz rockets and capsules, which launch from Kazakhstan and can only carry three people at a time, Boeing and SpaceX have designed vehicles capable of carrying as many as seven people—and in far more comfort.
“A Soyuz capsule is as small as you can be,” said retired astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year on the International Space Station and has flown on both the old NASA shuttle and its Russian counterpart. “You are elbow to elbow, and your knees are up to your chin,” he recalled of the Soyuz experience during a phone interview from his home in Houston. “One clear difference, when you look at these new vehicles, is that they are a lot more roomy and spacious inside.”
Astronauts may not need spacious digs. But the new capsules come outfitted with extra seats beyond the four mandated by NASA, since the space-faring public is expected to participate in the next generation of space travel. “When you start talking about space tourism,” Kelly said, “comfort is going to be important.”