The Boeing Company is an international aviation firm that is perhaps best known for building super-large passenger jets. But in the space field, the company is an established presence because of its work on the shuttle and the International Space Station.
This work is preparing Boeing to make a new spacecraft to carry astronauts. Boeing is constructing the CST-100 capsule, a spaceship that is similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft as well as the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle being constructed right now by Lockheed Martin and its partners.
When finished, the CST-100 will transport astronauts into Earth orbit and to the International Space Station.
NASA is providing Boeing with funding to achieve this goal, with the aim of starting up a new spacecraft program in the wake of the shuttle's retirement. Flights should take place around the middle of the next decade.
Partners seeking business markets
The spacecraft is designed to carry up to seven astronauts, with additional cargo also possible if fewer astronauts fly in a particular mission. Measuring 14.8 feet (4.5 meters) across at its widest point, the gumdrop-shaped spacecraft will first fly into space aboard Atlas 5 rockets.
Boeing isn't going at this venture alone. Another destination for its spacecraft could be an inflatable space station being proposed by Bigelow. As such, Bigelow has been committing some resources to the CST-100's development. [Gallery: CST-100: Photos of Boeing's Private Space Capsule]
Also, Boeing plans to grant Space Adventures the chance to sell any unused seats on the CST-100 for joyrides into low Earth orbit. However, the company has said it is not entirely sure what sort of business markets will arise for its spacecraft, if any.
"The market is obviously going to be there," said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing Commercial Programs, in a 2012 SPACE.com interview.
"I hope it’s in the near-term…but I’d say right now, it is soft because no one has been able to penetrate and really do it on a recurring basis. We’ll see."
Money from NASA
NASA is looking to develop a new spacecraft to replace the shuttle. As such, it is providing money to several space companies for development of private spaceships. The program, called Commercial Crew Development (CCDev), has proved to be a lucrative one for Boeing.
The aerospace company received $18 million from NASA in February 2010 in the program's first round of funding, then an additional $92 million in the second round in April 2011. A smaller contract, for $9.99 million, was awarded for certification qualifications in 2012.
In addition to Boeing's CST-100, NASA recently provided financial support for Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)'s Dragon spacecraft and Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser. These companies have been meeting flight milestones of their own in recent years, with SpaceX having a banner one in 2012 as Dragonreached the International Space Station twice.
But NASA has received less money than it asked for; in 2012, Congress offered only $406 million for commercial crew development, less than half of NASA's $850 million request. This has pushed back the timeline for the first commercial flight by at least two years, the agency has said.
Still, the agency hopes that at least one of these spacecraft will be ready in the 2016-17 timeframe to launch humans into space, which would reduce the current dependency on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. Boeing has stated it believes it can fly CST-100 by 2015 or 2016, depending on funding.
"These contracts represent important progress in restoring human spaceflight capabilities to the United States," Phil McAlister, director of NASA's commercial spaceflight development division, said in a statement in December 2012.
"NASA and its industry partners are committed to the goal of safely and cost-effectively launching astronauts from home within the next five years."
Preparing for the first flight
As the funding continues to flow from NASA, Boeing has been putting the CST-100 through a suite of tests to get it ready for the first spaceflights. [Infographic: Boeing's Private Space Capsule]
In 2011, the company put a 12-by-14 inch model of the CST-100 in a wind tunnel to determine the spacecraft's aerodynamic characteristics. The model was expected to be put in 20 different positions to simulate different phases of an abort-mode landing.
The next year, Boeing did parachute drop tests of the CST-100 to determine how well the spacecraft's parachutes and air bags worked. Unlike the Apollo missions, the CST-100 will touch down on land, making the air bags especially important for the job.
"It's been an interesting last couple of years for us," Roger Krone, president of Boeing's network and space systems, said in 2012.
"I think many people in the industry associate Boeing with the shuttle program and the International Space Station. [This is] kind of a chance for us to rethink what our space strategy is."
Later in the year, the company and NASA determined what would be the basic layout of the spacecraft, which NASA considers an important milestone under the third round of CCDev.
As late as 2012, Boeing said it is very dependent on NASA's money for continued work on CST-100. Should the funds dry up, Boeing hinted they may have to dial back development of the spacecraft.
"It's a tough question," said Keith Reiley, deputy program manager of Boeing's commercial crew development, at the inaugural Spacecraft Technology Expo in Los Angeles in May 2012.
"I frankly don't know. We've thought about it, but there's not anything official that we've done. Obviously NASA would be providing a significant amount of money. Would The Boeing Company be willing to continue that at that level? I doubt it – maybe at some lower level, but I really don't know."
However, as of early 2013 there is no hint yet of Boeing preparing to slow down. The company will continue running tests on CST-100, still firmly focused on bringing astronauts into space by the middle of the decade.
Boeing's next competition will be for a second phase of certification contract, which is expected to start in 2014. This is expected to include all the verification and development milestones needed for human spaceflights to the International Space Station.
NASA officials have noted it will be an open competition, so the CST-100 will once again have to prove itself in the next round.
— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor