Boeing, Space Adventures announce plans for commercial space launch

Space Adventures, the company that brokered eight private flights to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, will work with Boeing Corp. to launch wealthy space tourists and other non-NASA fliers aboard a capsule under development by the U.S. aerospace giant, officials announced Wednesday.

The Boeing CST-100 capsule, being designed to launch atop Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rockets, Boeing's Delta 4 or the SpaceX Falcon 9, is intended to carry NASA and European Space Agency astronauts to and from the International Space Station under a NASA initiative to encourage development of private-sector spacecraft.

Boeing's proposed CST-100 capsule, intended to ferry astronauts
-- and private citizens -- to and from government and private space
stations. (Photo: Boeing)
Under a separate memorandum of understanding between Boeing and Space Adventures, excess capacity -- seats not needed by NASA or its space station partners -- will be marketed to wealthy individuals, private companies, non-NASA federal agencies and other governments that might need access to space.

Pricing has not yet been determined, but officials said they expect the cost of a seat to be "competitive" with the going rate for a Soyuz launch. NASA pays the Russian space agency more than $50 million a seat for a Soyuz flight while the most recent Space Adventures client is believed to have paid some $40 million.

Bigelow Aerospace, which plans to launch a small commercial space station in the 2014 timeframe, also will utilize Boeing CST-100 capsules for transportation. Bigelow officials recently estimated the cost of a round-trip at around $25 million per seat.

"The marketplace ... has not been constrained by the number of people who wanted to go, it's been constrained by access to orbit," Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, told reporters Wednesday. "When we are now able to look at this with a partner who has ... the ability to roll spacecraft off an assembly line and operationalize the business of human spaceflight, I look forward to really understanding what the market is like and probing the depths so we ... eventually get to the point where the price starts to come down."

Boeing's Crew Space Transportation 100 capsule, or CST-100, was unveiled at the Farnborough Air Show in July. It is being designed under an $18 million Commercial Crew Development contract with NASA to begin work on a spacecraft that can deliver crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

The Boeing capsule also will be able to dock at Bigelow's planned space station and, Anderson hinted Wednesday, at other yet-to-be-named platforms.

The CST-100 spacecraft will seat up to seven crew members and be capable of staying at the space station for up to six months before returning to parachute-and-airbag-cushioned landing in the western United States. The capsules are being designed to fly up to 10 times each with new heat shields and service modules added between flights.

Four test flights currently are planned: two to test the capsule's emergency abort system, one unmanned orbital flight and one manned orbital fight with Boeing test pilots. NASA astronauts would be expected to pilot agency missions to the space station.

Assuming steady funding and no major technical problems, Boeing expects to be ready for operational flights in 2015.

"Obviously, with the coming completion of the space shuttle program, NASA has a significant and immediate need for transportation to the International Space Station of their crew," said former shuttle commander Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration.

An artist's view of the CST-100 capsule docking with Bigelow
Aerospace's planned space station. (Graphic: Boeing)
As prime contractor for the space station, Boeing "has a vested interest in ISS being a successful program for America and the world," Shaw said. "This opportunity to provide transportation services for NASA creates another opportunity to jump start the human migration to space.

"One of our stated goals is to become the Boeing commercial aircraft of human space commerce," he said. "Very few people have made it to orbit, probably a little over 500 out of some six or seven billion people. That's one out of 60 million human beings have had the opportunity to experience viewing our world from orbit. That's not enough. We want to see many more have that opportunity."

In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the Bush administration ordered NASA to complete the International Space Station and retire the shuttle by the end of fiscal 2010 and to develop new government spacecraft for a return to the moon in the 2020s.

The Obama administration has proposed canceling the Constellation moon program, deferring deep space exploration and relying on private sector spacecraft, not the government's, to get astronauts to low-Earth orbit. As with the Bush plan, NASA will have to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft until new U.S. rockets, either government or commercial, become available in the 2015 timeframe.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., and a handful of other companies also are pursuing plans for possible commercial manned spacecraft. But how much government money is available to fund initial development is a central question in the House and Senate versions of NASA's 2011 budget.

The House version sharply cuts funding for commercial spaceflight development while the Senate version comes closer to the president's initial plan. Both versions would require NASA to develop a new heavy lift rocket and continue work on the Constellation program's Orion deep space capsule.

John Elbon, vice president and program manager of Boeing commercial crew transportation systems, said the CST-100 development will continue regardless of which version of the NASA budget is approved. But, he said, "more funding works better" and a budget more in line with the Senate version would get the spacecraft into orbit sooner.

"This is an uncertain market," he said. "It's a new thing. As we look at the business case and put the numbers together, if we had to do this with Boeing investment only and the risk factors were in there, we wouldn't be able to close the business case.

"But the fact that NASA put together the program to assist companies in developing the capability -- so they will be an investor in this process -- that means, of course, that we have less cost to recover during operations."

In addition, with NASA expected to order a series of flights to the station for its own astronauts "there's a revenue stream there you can base the business case on," Elbon said. "That reduces the dependence on what I'll call the pure commercial part of this market for closing the business case."