Boeing flags its intentions in commercial space
I entrust my life to the Boeing corporation every year; as do the many millions who board planes to fly around the globe. The Chicago-based company has been in business for almost 100 years. Safety is everything.
So when I got to meet a group of its space executives this week at the Farnborough Air Show, I wanted to know how a company of its pedigree reacted when it heard US senators talk of commercial space as being too soon, and "too big a risk".
If it hadn't been for a Eurofighter screaming above the Boeing chalet at the time, you might have been able to hear a pin drop. These are delicate times politically, and no-one wants to speak too soon just in case anything they say comes out in a way that could be misinterpreted.
It was a slightly cheeky question, because much of the sniping at commercial space that has come from Congress these past few months has not really been directed at the likes of Boeing; it's directed at wannabes like SpaceX, new kids on the block who can't trace their heritage to an early 20th Century timber merchant.
But the point is well made: many of the companies who would like to lead the new age of commercial space are actually the same companies who built the old "space age" under government contract over the past 50 years - and none is bigger than Boeing itself.
The company's John Elbon eventually ventured a response to my question thus:
"We have not been as outspoken and as public about being involved in commercial up until this point; I think we will in the future. I think as those folks understand that all the spacecraft that have flown humans up until this point have been built by contractors - and they've been safe and reliable. We build a lot of aeroplanes that fly a lot of people, and they're safe and reliable. So this is really about a different approach to procurement as opposed to different people building the spaceships. I think as that is better understood, that opinion [about the riskiness of commercial space] will change."
Elbon is the project manager on Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST) 100 craft. The ship is its proposal for a commercial space taxi to take astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit.
The capsule is bigger than Apollo, and Boeing showed off new artist renderings at Farnborough that had up to seven astronauts sitting across two decks.
Boeing is "maturing the design" with money it has received from Nasa's CCDev (Crew development) programme - the same pot of money Congress is now looking to squeeze as it reshapes President Obama's new "vision" for space exploration.
Boeing believes it can have a certified launch concept - and that includes a man-worthy Atlas with a crew escape system - ready for operation in 2015.
To make it pay its way, Boeing needs the CST-100 to fly, and to fly often - which is why the executives at Farnborough were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the hotel entrepreneur Bob Bigelow.
For a decade, Bigelow has been investigating the possibilities offered by inflatable space structures, and he says his company is now ready to put its first inflatable space station in orbit for 2015.
Because Bigelow made his fortune in the hotel business, people assume he is merely trying to extend his Earthly operations into space. But as he explained to me, his company - Bigelow Aerospace - would merely provide the "office space" and it would be down to those who rented the modules to decide how to use them.
"Our customers are principally two major groups. The first group is sovereign clients - other countries that do not have the kind of access to the ISS that they would like to have, and that want to shape their own space futures. We hope to play a role in being able to offer them facilities in which they can do that. The other category is corporations. These would be companies connected to materials science, perhaps nano development or pharmaceutical development. Then there will be theoretically other categories. Folks may want to produce movies and maybe Sir Richard Branson may want to have one as a hotel."
You can hear an extended version of our chat by clicking on the audio below.
We've all become accustomed to the "tin cans" that make up the International space Station and so our first reaction on seeing a Bigelow module might be to question their flight worthiness purely on the basis of "they're different".
But these inflatables are based on a Nasa design. Their hulls are more than 40cm thick and incorporate layers of Vectran, one of those super-strength polymers you find in the protective gear that prevents lumberjacks from accidentally chopping off a leg with a misplaced chainsaw. Tough stuff.
If you want to rent one of Bigelow's big inflatables (his 330-cu-metre module) for four years, he is currently quoting $95m a year. Seats on the CST-100 to get your astronauts up there are being quoted at $24,950,000 per person.
Some three-quarters of all the monies collected are expected to end up in the hands of the transportation company - Boeing (See a video here of the CST-100 visiting a Bigelow station).
But the comments of Roger Krone, president of Network and Space Systems at Boeing, bring home just how marginal the economics are going to be on all of this, and the politicians on Capitol Hill may want to reflect on them as they work to frame Nasa's future budget and the cash it will have to support a fledgling commercial astronaut taxi service:
"For [a] commercial crew transportation system to work there has to be more than just ISS. The businesses cases won't close on just supporting ISS. I think that is universally understood within the industry; there needs to be other places to go. And frankly it is going to take entrepreneurial spirits like Bob and others to think about where those other places might be and to create those destinations."
Watch this space.