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Boeing Chooses Atlas V Rocket For Commercial Transport

August 5, 2011

Boeing Co. announced Thursday plans to launch its seven-seat spaceship on a test run to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015 using Atlas V rockets built by United Launch Alliance (ULA).

The project, however, is dependent on additional government funding, Boeing Vice President John Elbon told Reuters during a conference call. He declined to say how much extra would be needed.

The timeline is entirely contingent on NASA’s budget, but with the retirement of space shuttle program and the high cost of ferrying astronauts to the (ISS) using Russia’s Soyuz capsules, the Boeing timescale is a real possibility

“This selection marks a major step forward in Boeing’s efforts to provide NASA with a proven launch capability as part of our complete commercial crew transportation service,” said Elbon, who is also program manager of Commercial Crew Programs for Boeing.

If NASA selects Boeing for a development contract with sufficient funding, ULA will provide launch services beginning in 2015, which would include autonomous orbital flights, a transonic autonomous abort test launch, and manned missions.

ULA’s Atlas V rocket’s lineage gave it the edge, with 26 successful flights and no failures over the past five years of flying NASA probes, commercial satellites and military missions, said Elbon.

“We are pleased Boeing selected the Atlas V rocket and believe it is the right vehicle to help usher in the new commercial era in human spaceflight,” said George Sowers, ULA vice president of Business Development. “The Atlas V is a cost-effective, reliable vehicle and ULA stands ready to support Boeing’s commercial human spaceflight program.”

Boeing is one of four firms sharing $269 million in NASA funds to begin developing alternative transportation of astronauts to the ISS. Until a US company can develop a craft capable of ferrying passengers to the space station, NASA will pay Russia upwards of $52 million per seat to do the job.

Boeing plans to start wind tunnel testing of the Atlas V and the CST-100 this year and will use the results to complete a preliminary design review of the integrated system in 2012 under a second round of its Commercial Crew Development Space Act Agreement with NASA.

The Commercial Crew program consists of developing, manufacturing, testing and evaluating, and demonstrating the CST-100 spacecraft, launch vehicle and ground/mission operations for NASA’s new Commercial Crew human spaceflight program.

The CST-100 is a reusable, capsule-shaped spacecraft that includes a crew module and a service module. It relies on proven, affordable materials and subsystem technologies that can transport up to seven people, or a combination of people and cargo.

“Our approach is to build a reliable spacecraft, built on existing simple systems, then integrate that with a proven launch vehicle all focused on putting in place a very safe system that can be operational as soon as practical so that we can start flying U.S. crews from U.S. launch sites in the post-shuttle era,” Elbon told Reuters.

“We believe Boeing’s selection of the Atlas V rocket reflects another positive step in the development of a commercial crew transportation system,” said NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma. “This brings Boeing and United Launch Alliance one step closer to developing one that NASA potentially could use one day to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station.”

President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for NASA’s commercial crew initiative is around $850 million, a figure that Elbon says is close for a trio of CST-100 test flights in 2015, though delays are likely if the pool of funds is divided among several spacecraft developers.

NASA is also funding space taxi projects by Space Exploration Technologies, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

SpaceX plans to launch its Dragon spaceship on the company’s own Falcon 9 launchers while Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin have outlined plans to use ULA’s Atlas V rockets for test flights.

The Atlas V rocket enjoys the federal government’s highest safety and reliability rating. Atlas V and its predecessors have had more than 95 successful launches.

George Sowers, a ULA vice president, said Atlas’ routine use of Russian rocket engines would have no impact on gaining NASA’s certification to carry humans into low-Earth orbit.

The Russian-built RD-180 engine has been used without incident on 32 Atlas launches. “Our Russian partners continue to perform very well,” Sowers said. “We have no plans to replace them at this time.”

Congress has yet to enact Obama’s request for $18.7 billion for the current fiscal year. NASA is seeking $3.9 billion for human space exploration, which includes the $850 million for commercial spaceflight and $289 million for research and development.

Image Caption: Core stage of an Atlas V being raised to a vertical position. Credit: NASA

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