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Boeing Moves Forward With Commercial Space Capsule

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With the impending retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet, aerospace juggernaut Boeing is hard at work developing a new capsule-based spaceship that could be ready for its first commercial spaceflight by 2015.

Boeing's new Crew Space Transportation-100 spacecraft is designed to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), as well as future private space stations.

Keith Reiley, Boeing's commercial crew development program manager, will be presenting updates on the Commercial Crew Transportation System at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautic Space 2010 Conference and Exposition next week in Anaheim, Calif.

Building on experience

As one of the leading suppliers of human space systems and services, Boeing already has a strong heritage in the industry. [ Video: Boeing's New Spacecraft ]

"It was an enormous advantage," Reiley told "A lot of the equipment we're looking at has ISS heritage. About half of our team were designers that came from ISS and had experience with the flight hardware. The other half were space shuttle designers."

To help reach its goal, the company looked to existing facilities, launchers and proven processes to ensure safety, lower development costs and reduce overall risk.

Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft is approximately 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide and can carry up to seven people. The cone-shaped capsule will look similar to NASA's Apollo and Orion spacecraft.

Boeing settled on the cone-shaped design because it was thought to be the safest and most inexpensive of the vehicle concepts that were considered, Reiley said.

Pushy launch escape system

The spacecraft is being designed for compatibility with a variety of rockets, including United Launch Alliance's Atlas and Delta boosters and SpaceX's Falcon rockets. This will give Boeing the flexibility to select an appropriate rocket later in the development process.

The spacecraft will also be equipped with a unique pusher abort system in case the crew encounters an emergency during launch.

"This is the first time anyone has proposed or succeeded with a pusher design," Reiley said. "The pusher appears, to us, to be simpler, less expensive and just as safe."

If necessary, the launch abort system would fire pressurized propellant for three seconds to quickly push the vehicle away from the rocket. A parachute would then be deployed to assist with the landing.

One of the advantages of the pusher design is that in the event of a smooth launch, the same propellant can also be used on orbit, either in guiding the CST-100 to dock with a space station, or to boost stations themselves, whose orbits slowly decay over time.

"You get the ability to use the propellant to re-boost our customer stations or simply for orbital maneuvering to get there," Reiley said. "In order to catch up with the station you're trying to rendezvous with, you have to boost yourself up to the station's orbit, and all that takes a certain amount of fuel."

For Boeing, one of their main challenges in expanding their branch of commercial spaceflight is in designing a relatively inexpensive option.

The company has set a design requirement that the CST-100 be reusable up to 10 times. The exact number of times the capsule is reused, however, will depend upon inspection after touchdown.

The CST-100 is part of the company's $18 million award from NASA under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Space Act Agreement. The award aims to advance the concepts and technology required to build a commercial crew space transportation system.  

Boeing's capsule design is one of several efforts by different U.S. companies to develop the first private spaceship capable of flying humans to space. The push fits in with President Barack Obama's new plan for NASA, which calls for commercial spacecraft to take over the role vacated by the space shuttles of transporting astronauts to the space station.