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Boeing’s New Crew Spacecraft

The company wants to be the first from the private sector to build a human-rated capsule.

Boeing is building a capsule to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station and to future private space stations. Yesterday, at a media briefing, the company presented designs of its cone-shaped spacecraft, which is bigger than the Apollo capsule of the 60s and 70s, but smaller than NASA’s possible future crew capsule, Orion. Boeing also announced a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace, a private company that is building inflatable space habitats with plans to launch the first private space station by 2014.

An artist rendering of Boeing’s CST-100. Credit: Boeing

Boeing’s new spacecraft, called CST-100, is being built through an $18 million award from NASA under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Space Act Agreement, which is intended to stimulate the private sector to develop human spaceflight capabilities. The company has a long history with NASA, and hopes to be the first private company to build a capsule that could take cargo and astronauts to the space station, helping fill the gap when the shuttles retire. But Boeing is not the only company with such ambitious plans. Orbital Sciences Corporation and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) are also in the midst of developing similar designs with funding from NASA.

While NASA could be a good customer for Boeing, servicing the government agency alone would probably not support the business case for the vehicle. So the company’s partnership with Bigelow, which is in need of a transportation system to its space-based habitats and future space station, is essential.

According to Aviationweek.com,

Bigelow has at least two variants of space stations it is working on. Pricing for utilization would be $79 million - $95 million per year under a four-year lease, depending on the station’s size, plus just under $25 million per seat for each crew member, Bigelow says. Three-quarters of Bigelow’s revenue would go toward space transportation providers.

And on the CST-100 design:

An abort system would involve a “pusher” system, rather than the traditional arrangement of small rockets that pull a manned vehicle away from a launcher in distress, Boeing officials say. The advantage is that if the abort system is not used, the fuel would then be available for maneuvering in orbit.

The CST-100 could stay on orbit as long as seven months. After returning to Earth via ballistic re-entry while protected by an ablative shield, it would be slowed by parachutes to settle on dry land. The capsule could then receive a new heat shield and be refurbished to fly again. The CST-100 is being designed for a life of up to 10 missions for each vehicle.

Boeing did not announce when the spacecraft would be ready to fly, and it is not certain which rocket it will launch on–the company is designing it to be compatible with a variety: United Launch Alliances’ Delta IV and Atlas V, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

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