The US has been sending astronauts up to the International Space Station with the aid of Russia’s Soyuz launch program since the retirement of the Space Shuttle back in 2011. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years since the US — the country that landed on the moon — has had the capability to send humans into orbit. NASA has been working to get America back into space with its Commercial Crew Program, which pushes private companies to develop replacements for the Shuttle. Long-time government contractor Boeing has just unveiled its vision for the future of human spaceflight — Crew Space Transportation (CST-100). Yeah, it could use a snazzier name.
Boeing has shown off parts of the CST-100 in the past, but this is the first time the company has made the final design of the capsule public. Perhaps the most striking thing about this spacecraft is the science-fiction vibe you get from it. Gone are the vast arrays of dials and switches that characterized past instrument panels, replaced with large LCDs that can adapt to display various information and controls as needed.
Another aspect that sets the CST-100 apart from past vessels is the number and size of viewports. When dealing with the cold and unforgiving vacuum of space, engineers have long taken a less-is-more approach when it comes to windows. The seals around a viewport are a potential weak point for the craft, but Boeing has designed CST-100 with a weldless frame that allows for larger portholes that offer a killer view. The frame also makes it sturdy enough to complete ten missions before an overhaul is needed.
The CST-100 is designed to carry a crew of up to seven, but it doesn’t require that many people to pilot. The seats are arranged in two racks on the wall of the capsule — it would actually be the “floor” in launch position. The top set of chairs are where crew like the pilot and copilot would sit, but directly beneath them are several more seats that can be occupied by passengers who don’t need to have direct control over the spacecraft.
Boeing doesn’t want only NASA astronauts using the CST-100. Rather, it sees a future for this design in all aspects of private spaceflight, which could mean transporting passengers who don’t have extensive training. That might explain why it’s so blue in the crew capsule. It’s not just for the benefit of the cameras — Boeing chose that gentle sky-blue light to have a calming effect and take little of the sterile edge off the capsule. Great for jittery passengers, or to keep everyone relaxed if things go wrong.
Boeing’s CST-100 will be going up against SpaceX’s updated version of the Dragon capsule in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. For once, SpaceX has a leg up on the long-time government contractors. It has already flown the Dragon in space on automated resupply missions to the International Space Station, whereas Boeing has yet to get CST-100 on the launchpad. SpaceX can also launch its capsule with the in-house Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing plans to use something along the lines of an Atlas V (with its Russian-made engines) to deliver the pod to orbit.
Boeing thinks it can have the Crew Space Transportation operational by 2015, but that’s contingent on funding from NASA. SpaceX is already testing a crewed version of the Dragon and expects to launch a mission to the ISS in 2015.
By Ryan Whitwam at ExtremeTech.
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