The last human to command a space shuttle stood outside Boeing’s main office building in southeast Houston Wednesday morning, speaking effusively about the company’s Starliner spacecraft, when it began to rain. But as sometimes happens in this humid Gulf coast city, sunshine persisted even at it rained. Perhaps we should step under one of the building’s awnings, Chris Ferguson suggested—to escape the rain and the Sun.
The weather offered an apt metaphor for Boeing’s recent fortunes in aerospace. The company has a big piece of every single one of NASA’s human spaceflight programs. It’s also the prime contractor of the Space Launch System’s core stage as well as for International Space Station operations, and Boeing is one two participants in the commercial crew program to deliver astronauts to the space station.
But clouds loom, too. SpaceX and Blue Origin have begun to demonstrate the viability of reusable rockets, leading to questions about the affordability of large, expendable rockets like the SLS. NASA will also likely drop funding for the station in 2024, or 2028 at the latest, and as the space agency moves on to cislunar space it is not clear Boeing will be the prime contractor on NASA’s next orbital outpost. Finally, Boeing’s Starliner is in a tight race with SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to be the first to reach the launch pad for commercial crew in roughly two years.
“If everything goes well, we’ll meet our schedule,” Ferguson said of the Starliner’s development, which as all new spacecrafts do, faces the pitfall of unknown unknowns. “As this begins to come to life, we’re keeping our fingers crossed we’re doing it the right way. Are we going to find one of those things that we didn’t think about? Or is it all going to go swimmingly?”
Ars had come to Boeing’s offices in the Clear Lake area, just four miles down the road from Johnson Space Center, to see its new training facility for the Starliner, formerly known as the CST-100 spacecraft. The company’s Space Training, Analysis and Review, or STAR Facility, will offer simulators and labs to train both astronauts and flight controllers. That’s because, as part of their commercial crew contracts, Boeing and SpaceX will bear primary responsibility training crews for the first time in NASA’s history.
On Tuesday, Boeing had a ceremony to officially open its new Space Training, Analysis and Review, or STAR Facility.
The facility will be used to train astronauts and flight controllers to use the Starliner aircraft.
Oh look, there's Chris Ferguson, last commander of the space shuttle and now deputy program manager of the Starliner spacecraft.
A short ceremony to mark the facility’s official opening was attended by politicians such as Texas Congressman Brian Babin, whose district includes Johnson Space Center. Afterward, Ars sat down to talk with John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Space Exploration programs. We were eager to ask about the company’s recent acknowledgement that the first crewed flight of Starliner would slip from October, 2017, to February, 2018. Prior to that announcement, there was talk in the aerospace community about both Boeing and SpaceX having trouble meeting NASA’s preferred timeline of the end of 2017, but so far only Boeing has publicly addressed those challenges.
“Our philosophy as a company like Boeing is that we’re going to be transparent with what we’re doing,” Elbon said. “The schedule we have now laid out is one which we have a legitimate chance of making. I can’t speak to what the other guys do.”
In recent years, NASA has blamed delays in the commercial crew program on under-funding from Congress, and the shortfall between what President Obama asked for and Congress provided has exceeded $1 billion since 2011. The agency has said Boeing and SpaceX would probably have launched by the end of 2015 had Congress provided full funding. Elbon, however, did not blame legislators for the recently announced delay.
“This is a development program and development programs are always difficult,” he said. Engineers are still struggling to limit the spacecraft’s mass, and when they tested a model of the Starliner mated to the Atlas 5 rocket in a wind tunnel, they discovered some aeroacoustic issues with flow around the vehicle. Boeing is now working to modify the vehicle’s exterior lines to get the airflow just right, and Elbon said the company believes it has a good plan to address this problem.
Another big hurdle is qualification testing, a procedure that verifies the design and manufacturing process. With the spacecraft’s avionics system alone, there are more than 200 boxes that various suppliers are building, and those must be assembled, integrated, and tested by both Boeing and NASA to ensure that they work.
But the end is in sight. Boeing has made deposits with the United Launch Alliance to use its Atlas V rocket for four launches—an uncrewed test flight in late 2017, a crewed test flight in 2018, and the first two service missions for NASA to follow.
Meanwhile Elbon knows that SpaceX is working just as hard with its own rocket and spacecraft, to claim bragging rights as the American company which ended the country’s dependence on Russia for rides into space. “I sometimes characterize this as a competition, but it’s like a golf match,” he said. “You just have to play your own ball, and play the course. You can’t worry about playing the other guy. We want to win, and we’ll see what’s on our scorecard when we get to the 18th hole.”
After our interview with Elbon we found Ferguson, the three-time astronaut, outside in the sunshine. Since leaving NASA in 2011, his role at Boeing has been to ensure the spacecraft’s controls are flier-friendly, and he recently became deputy director of the Starliner program. He agreed with Elbon that probably the biggest leap before flight is getting through all of the qualification testing.
“A lot of it is out of our hands in some sense, with the suppliers,” he said. “We have a lot of components being made, many of which are first-time designs. Getting them through the qualification tests and getting them into the vehicle, I think that’s the long pole.” Then, he added, “It’s really hot now. I think we should go back inside.”