Boeing’s CST-100: Progress to Commercial Crew and funding uncertainties

by Chris Gebhardt

Boeing has successfully completed numerous critical milestones in the first half of 2015 for their CST-100 capsule and commercial crew launch services plan for NASA as the aerospace company continues on its intricate path toward a scheduled crewed flight debut in 2017 – despite numerous funding shortfalls and future funding uncertainties from the United States Congress.

CST-100 progress and completed milestones:

Since completing their Certification Baseline Review (CBR) on 19 November 2014, Boeing has progressed through their next seven milestones toward the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) for their CST-100 capsule.

Following the CBR, Boeing successfully completed the Ground Segment CDR (Critical Design Review) on 4 December 2014 before moving onto the Phase 2 Safety Review (Part B) in early January 2015.

By mid-March, Boeing completed the Phase 2 Safety Review (Safety Technical Review Board Readiness) and moved on to the Delta Integrated CDR, which took place on 27 March 2015.

Since then, Boeing has spent the summer months conducting the Phase 2 Safety review (STRB 80%) as well as producing the CDR for the launch elements of the program and the Qualification Test Article Production Readiness Review.

Moreover, in late July, teams at the Kennedy Space Center began building the Structural Test Article (STA) for the CST-100 capsule inside former Orbiter Processing Facility bay 3 (OPF-3).

2015-08-11-141226Conversion of OPF-3, now called Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF), from its Shuttle-era configuration to a modernized, clean factory layout has been ongoing since the OPF-3 lease agreement was formally announced in 2011.

Since that time, all Shuttle hardware has been removed and more than 150 pieces of new hardware have been built and installed in the facility in accordance with CST-100 production requirements.

In terms of the now-under-construction STA, Boeing will use this article to assess and validate the production methods and procedures for the CST-100.

In all, the STA will help validate the effectiveness of the CST-100 capsule’s design and its intended performance targets during abort mode scenarios – validations that will take place when the STA is used for the upcoming pad abort tests.

2015-08-11-150531But Boeing’s focus has not been solely on the production of the spacecraft or the CDRs for its systems or the human-rated version of the Atlas V rocket that will launch the CST-100 capsule.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has also begun construction work on the new launch service tower that will be required at the Atlas V pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to allow crews and ground workers access to the CST-100 capsule atop the Atlas V.

The tower, designed to work in concert with Atlas V’s service tower on its mobile launch base, will be a fixed structure that will not interfere with non-CST-100 launches of the Atlas V.

2015-08-11-141107To facilitate this non-interference directive, the CST-100 launch tower will be built in segments at a location away from the launch pad.

Once each segment is completed, it will be brought to and stacked at the pad in collaboration with United Launch Alliance, the owner and operator of the Atlas V rocket, so that construction efforts do not interfere with the Atlas V’s busy and steady launch schedule from the Cape.

The new tower, once completed, will have three main features, including the Crew Access Tower, the Emergency Egress System, and the Crew Access Arm with White Room.

The White Room, like with Apollo and Shuttle, will provide an environmentally sealed area immediately outside the CST-100 capsule for pre-flight and post-launch scrub activities.

Forward work and funding:

Current schedules, as of 15 May 2015, show Boeing’s first crewed flight to ISS occurring in August 2017.

Boeing was the first of the two CCP companies chosen for commercial crew operations to receive Post Certification Mission (PCM) approval from NASA – certification that allows Boeing to fly a crewed mission to the ISS by December 2017.

2015-08-11-150638At present, Boeing’s progress schedule of an August 2017 launch represents a four month cushion in the schedule toward December 2017.

With the PCM milestone behind them and some remaining flexibility within Boeing’s timeline toward launch, NASA and Boeing are now working to finalize the framework for the company’s Certification of Flight Readiness (CoFR).

CoFR is a mandatory part of all spaceflight endeavors that ensures that all proper procedures and preparatory steps have been taken and met to satisfaction prior to approval for flight.

In addition to CoFR, Boeing is baselining its Mishap Preparedness and Contingency Plan with NASA.

2015-08-11-150714Creation of the baseline procedures that would be used in the event of a launch failure is an important next step for Boeing; however, the main driving force for CCP continues to be the ongoing budgetary battles between NASA, the White House, and Congress.

For Fiscal Year 2016 (FY 2016) beginning 1 October 2015, NASA has requested $1.243 billion for CCP through the President’s Budget.

The price tag stems from the already-in-place fixed price, FAR-based (Federal Acquisition Regulation) contracts, Boeing and SpaceX’s demonstration of good progress and performance, and the ability to end U.S. reliance on Russia for crew transportation to the International Space Station.

2015-08-11-150748Since some funding is obligatory prior to Boeing and SpaceX beginning work on certain upcoming milestones, the July 2015 Commercial Crew Status report notes that “NASA … requires the full CCP President’s Budget Request for FY 2016.”

However, the U.S. Congress once again appears to have different ideas on the amount of funding necessary for CCP.

In total, the U.S. Senate has proposed a funding initiative for CCP in FY 2016 of just $900 million – well short of the $1.243 billion asked for by NASA in the President’s Budget.

The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed allocation of slightly more than $900 million for CCP, though they still aren’t willing to come anywhere near the requested amount.

2015-01-30 11_12_06-The Plan to Launch America - YouTubeWith the U.S. Senate and House now proposing different funding levels for Commercial Crew, part of an overall difference toward and fight against the President’s FY 2016 Budget proposal, the differing requests will have to go to a joint funding committee where the funding level and language will be uniformed.

This step must occur prior to the CCP budget being included in the uniform budget that must be passed by both the Senate and House before the 1 October commencement of the government’s  new Fiscal Year in the U.S.

If consensus in the proposal for the overall federal budget, not just NASA’s part of the budget, can’t be reached by 11:59:59pm on 30 September, then NASA and the entire U.S. government will likely be funded by Continuing Resolution for the first three months of FY 2016.

2015-08-11-150924A Continuing Resolution for U.S. FY funding is when the U.S. government or portions thereof are funded at the previous Fiscal Year’s levels until a budget can be decided.

In response to these Senate and House proposed funding levels for CCP, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden wrote an open letter to Congress on 5 August 2015, in which he stated that “Reductions from the FY 2016 request for Commercial Crew proposed in the House and Senate … would result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY 2016 and would likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of FY 2016.

“If this occurs, the existing fixed-price CCtCap contracts may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost.”

Nonetheless, while funding from the U.S. Congress has always been a source of frustration and schedule impacts for CCP, NASA is confident with the work they are seeing from Boeing as well as their other partner, SpaceX.

2015-08-11-141329As stated in NASA’s July 2015 Commercial Crew Program Status report, “NASA has no plans to down select the number of partners in response to lower than requested funding levels.”

Furthermore, potential reductions in funding for FY 2016 have no impact on what has already been accomplished by the CCP partners.

According to NASA, “CCP is now at the point where all the preliminary work through the previous phases of the program is all paying off, and our two partners are off and running with effective NASA insight/oversight.

“We need to keep up the momentum with adequate funding to achieve safe, reliable and cost effective commercial crew transportation services.”

(Images: via NASA, Boeing and L2’s CST-100 Section, including renderings created by L2 Artist Nathan Koga – the latter are not official Boeing images.)

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