July 15, 2011 at 9:56 PM ET
Few companies are as connected to the history of U.S. spaceflight than Boeing. The company can trace its lineage back to Apollo and the Saturn 5. It's the prime U.S. contractor for the International Space Station, and a partner in the joint venture that manages the space shuttle program for NASA.
But now the company is running in a new space race for the post-shuttle era, with a business model that will treat Boeing spaceships more like Boeing airplanes.
NASA has committed more than $110 million so far to the development of Boeing's CST-100 capsule for ferrying up to seven astronauts to and from the space station, beginning as early as 2015. Boeing is partnering with "new space" companies such as Bigelow Aerospace and Space Adventures on its bid. It's even playing a supporting role on Sierra Nevada's rival project to build a winged mini-shuttle for NASA's use.
When Atlantis lands at the end of its current mission, that will spell the end of the 30-year space shuttle program — and the beginning of a years-long hiatus in NASA's capability to launch humans into orbit. Thousands will be losing their jobs, including employees at Boeing and at United Space Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture that's the main shuttle contractor. Work on the CST-100 will only partially close the employment gap.
Just today, Florida Today reported that Boeing was involved in negotiations with NASA and Space Florida on the use of facilities at Kennedy Space Center and its environs in Florida for CST-100 development. One option would be to use the orbiter processing facility that once housed the shuttle Discovery. That shuttle was towed to NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building this week for further work to turn it into a museum piece for the Smithsonian.
John Elbon, the Boeing manager in charge of the CST-100 project, says the company expects to decide which rocket would be used to launch the spaceship in the next two or three weeks, and to identify a manufacturing site in a couple of months. "Space Florida and the state and the center have been very good to work with through this process," he told Florida Today's James Dean. "They've been very responsive, and I know they're working hard to get an offer on the table here, so we'll see how it plays out."
This week I chatted with Elbon about Boeing's perspective on the post-shuttle era and the commercial space race. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Boeing has been involved with the shuttle and station programs for so long. What does the end of the space shuttle era portend? Some people are saying this could be the end of U.S. human spaceflight. How do you see the next chapter unfolding?
John Elbon: The shuttle is the icon of human spaceflight. For lots of people alive today, the shuttle has been around their whole life. There are a lot of people who have worked for their whole career on the shuttle. So it's an emotional thing to get to the end of such a successful program. It's a sad thing to think about. But it's a transition, I think, as opposed to the end of human spaceflight.
There are two big objectives going forward: The first objective is that there's a very significant investment that's been made in the space station. We can predict that there will be Americans on the space station through 2020, and so that's human spaceflight, and it's ongoing. But it's really important that we use the logistics system that's in place so we can use the station the way it was intended at least through 2020, and there's no technical reason why we couldn't use it beyond that date, to 2028 or so.
The second thrust is to take human exploration beyond the confines of low Earth orbit again, and even beyond the moon. Developing the capability, the spacecraft and the launch vehicles to take us back to the moon, to Lagrangian points, asteroids and finally to Mars — and using those missions as drivers for the technologies that are necessary to go to Mars — that's the second big focus.
Here's the way commercial crew fits into this: We're not developing a capsule and putting it into low Earth orbit just for the sake of doing that. We've been doing that for 50 years, since John Glenn went up. But we want to develop systems that can go to low Earth orbit in a very affordable way, so that we can use the station, use these systems to transport people to station, and still have funding left within NASA's budget to develop the capability for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
So it's important, I think, to look at commercial crew as an enabler for the utilization of station and the development of capabilities for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Plus, once we have affordable access to low Earth orbit, hopefully a commercial market develops in low Earth orbit. And, boy, that's when this thing can really jump-start.
Q: Some people have asked if commercial spaceflight is the way to go, why is NASA having to put in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting this? Is it truly commercial if NASA has to pay so much to have these new spaceships developed?
A: There's a lot of debate over this definition of "commercial." I can explain, from Boeing's perspective, what the market is like and what the business case needs to be. From our perspective, there's not a very definite market at this point beyond flying NASA astronauts to the space station. We think that clearly there is a market. I'll give you two examples: Space Adventures, who we're teamed with, has proven there's a market by flying seven people to space station on Soyuz craft, one of them twice. Clearly there are some numbers of folks who are willing to pay for that transportation.
And a little over a year ago now, we traveled with Robert Bigelow to the Farnborough Airshow, and we met with several of his potential customers. They are countries around the world who can't afford the infrastructure for their own space program, but certainly have the resources to rent one of his modules on orbit for some number of months, train their own astronauts. Assuming there's some form of transportation like the one we're working on, they can take those astronauts up to Bigelow's space complex and do research. From those meetings, I can tell you that there are countries that are serious about doing that, assuming that there's a safe and reliable transportation system and that Mr. Bigelow gets his space complex up there.
Those markets are there, but to define how deep those markets are and put a business case together that warrants the investment it takes to develop a transportation capability ... from our perspective, that business case doesn't close. So because this is a new market, it's important that there is government funding to assist developers in producing this capability, and then that there is a government use of this system to be the foundation of the market. In fact, we can close our business case around that NASA business, and then look at the commercial market beyond that as a significant potential upside.
It's a model similar to the way airmail delivery was used as a government effort to help fund the early endeavors in the commercial airplane arena.
Q: Another point of debate is the balance of money going to commercial crew as opposed to NASA's beyond-orbit exploration effort. What's the proper balance?
A: The technologies that it takes to go beyond low Earth orbit are much more involved and less existent than the capabilities to go to low Earth orbit. We understand that mission, we've got the technology to do that. It's more about running the business than developing the technology. But going to Mars, for example, is a big deal. It's a long mission, so the vehicles have to be more reliable. You can't come home on a moment's notice. Logistics are a huge consideration. There are issues around radiation in deep space. Mars has an atmosphere, so entering and landing on Mars is different from landing on the moon or making a rendezvous with an asteroid. You have a communications delay, so the crew has to be able to operate independently from the ground.
All that needs to be worked out. Those issues are not well understood. So it's important that those missions are developed and executed through government-led programs. That's such a grand adventure that it will probably require an international approach.
We are able to do commercial crew right now, and so are others in this game. In our case, we have the experts in the shuttle and station programs, and we can transfer them over to work on commercial crew. Others are hiring that expertise. But if we don't continue government-led programs, working on these new technologies so that we're developing the skills that can feed that pipeline for commercial activity, sooner or later that dries up.
Q: That raises a potential problem: Thousands of people are going to be laid off from the shuttle program soon after Atlantis lands, and that could lead to an employment gap in aerospace. What's the strategy for retaining workers so that they feel as if there's a place they can go?
A: I think the most important thing is to get on with it. The authorization bill that was passed said that we had to develop a multipurpose crew vehicle and a Space Launch System, and that we should use the existing Constellation contracts to the extent we can to do that. So the best way to retain the skills here is to get on with Orion and get on with SLS. It's not going to take much of a lull between now and when those programs really get going for those skilled workers to find other jobs, and then it becomes difficult to recover that expertise.
Q: Has there been a learning curve for Boeing to get accommodated to the new environment for spaceflight? Are there new lessons that have to be learned?
A: There are, but fortunately Boeing's got that kind of experience in-house. Not only do we have experience from the human spaceflight side, we also have a lot of experience on commercial aerospace vehicles — like Boeing airplanes, commercial launch vehicles, Delta 4 and Sea Launch, and commercial satellites. So there's a lot of experience working on commercial programs as well as experience working on human spaceflight. I think we're in a unique position, being able to combine those two and put together a team that can really focus on something safe and reliable, because of our human spaceflight experience; and also affordable and available soon, because of our commercial experience.
Q: Do you have any personal thoughts about the future? We asked people to tell us in an online poll whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about future spaceflight, and about two-thirds said they were pessimistic. Where do you stand?
A: I'm an optimist by nature.
This is what it is. The shuttle program is ending, and we need to look at this transition as an opportunity and turn it into something. You can't move on to the next step without letting go of what's behind us. As I said, the shuttle is an incredibly capable vehicle, it's an incredibly successful program — but like it or not, we're moving on to the next phase. So we need to figure out how to make the most of it, and grow into the next phase. It's a mourning process. We need to let go of the past and embrace the future.
More perspectives on the post-shuttle era:
Correction for 3 p.m. ET July 18: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly stated that XCOR Aerospace was on Boeing's team for its commercial crew development bid.
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