CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — In the former shop where shuttle main engines were serviced, Boeing hopes to assemble a new commercial crew capsule that it envisions will end the gap in human space flight missions launched from Florida.
Inside the renovated production facility Monday, Boeing (BA) displayed a mock-up of its CST-100 capsule, less than two weeks after the younger SpaceX unveiled a new Dragon capsule designed to carry astronauts.
"America wants (its) space program back," said Chris Ferguson, director of crew and mission systems for Boeing's CST-100 program and the last commander of a space shuttle mission. "We're beginning to see the first vestiges of that, and it's good for the American public, it's good for the Florida economy."
NASA's Commercial Crew Program plans to award one or more contracts in August or September to fly astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he expects NASA to select multiple winners if its budget next year holds close to the $805 million the Senate has proposed.
"That's enough money for NASA to do the competition for at least two (companies), and maybe more," he said. "That of course is up to NASA as they evaluate all the proposals."
In addition to Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon, the competition includes Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser mini-shuttle.
NASA has contributed about $1.5 billion to the development of commercial crew vehicles since 2010. Boeing's roughly $600 million is the most any one company has received.
Nelson was the first to climb into one of the CST-100's five black, reclined seats alongside two mock astronauts in orange pressure suits. Then a member of the House, Nelson flew on shuttle Columbia in January 1986.
The capsule, about 13 feet in diameter, features an overhead panel of digital displays and switches and Samsung tablets for the crew, blue interior lighting and room to tuck small cargo bags.
"It's not going to be the space shuttle," Ferguson said. "It doesn't have the capability for 50,000 pounds of cargo. But what it brings to the table is a very safe ride to low Earth orbit for up to five American astronauts."
Boeing's formal presentation contrasted with the party-like atmosphere when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled Dragon Version 2 to a cheering crowd at the company's Southern California headquarters.
And unlike SpaceX, founded in 2002, Boeing takes pride in the CST-100's use of proven rather than new technologies. Whereas the Dragon plans to use a futuristic precision powered landing system, the CST-100 will use parachutes to slow its descent and airbags to cushion the landing.
Starting with a test flight without a crew in January 2017, Boeing's CST-100 missions would launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets.
United Launch Alliance officials Monday showed off a model of the nearly 200-foot tall access tower that would support missions from Launch Complex 41. Its completion is targeted for September 2016.
Although Boeing would fly only one or two missions a year for NASA, up to six CST-100 service modules could be processed simultaneously in the former engine shop. Crew modules would be assembled in an adjacent former shuttle hangar called Orbiter Processing Facility-3, where construction continued Monday.
The facilities, including a nearby office building, are being renovated with the help of $20 million from the state of Florida.
Boeing has not decided how to proceed if it does not win a commercial crew contract, but Space Florida is confident another company would use the facilities if Boeing does not. Boeing has said its program could create up to 550 jobs here that would start this fall as components for a test capsule arrived.
"I have a tremendous respect for the disciplined culture, the hard working people here at the Space Coast," said John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration.
NASA once hoped to launch commercial crew missions in 2015, but lack of money has pushed that goal to late 2017. Russia's Soyuz spacecraft will offer the only crew access to the station until then.
Few believe the program can be accelerated at this point, but Nelson encouraged NASA to try for missions sooner.
"I wish you'd target to 2016, because there is a whole bunch of us here, everyone in this audience, that wants to see Americans on American rockets, rocketing back into orbit," he said. "That can't come soon enough."