Take a look inside NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, launching astronauts and regular people into space in the future

KPRC 2 space reporter previews the program destined to launch man to space from US soil

Countdown to commercial crew launches
Countdown to commercial crew launches

HOUSTON – NASA, SpaceX and Boeing are tirelessly working on their efforts to launch Americans to space from US soil -- a feat that has not been accomplished since the shuttle retired in 2011. The only way astronauts have been transported is through Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

“We are all making history. We’re all trying to do this for our country,” said NASA Deputy Program Manager for the Commercial Crew Program Steve Stich.

KPRC2′s Rose-Ann Aragon previewed the Commercial Crew Program in a two-part mini-series.

“We’re doing it differently then we’ve done previously,” said NASA International Space Station Program Manager Kirk Shireman.

This is a goal that at this point, one can only imagine.

The NASA Commercial Crew Program allows commercial companies to build the space vehicles and mechanisms needed to launch astronauts and people to the International Space Station.

NASA would purchase the products and services for space travel, while the company could use their vehicles for private missions of their own.

NASA tapped two companies to make it happen: Boeing, a long-time, traditional partner of NASA, and SpaceX, which Stich described as a rapidly moving company that is newer to the partnership.

“They were chosen because they meet our mission. They had the best technical solutions. They had the best safety net,” Stich said. “They both have a little different culture. Boeing tends to be a little more traditional in the way that they design, develop and test spacecraft. SpaceX likes to rapidly fill the design and then test it in a flight test and then iterate it and then make it better.”

So far, there are nine Commercial Crew astronauts, which are among a team of around 550 people overlooking two launch vehicles, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, plus two spacecrafts, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and Boeing’s Starliner capsule. They will also be looking at several mission controls.

If all goes well, SpaceX will launch the Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket with two astronauts inside, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The SpaceX mission control is in Hawthorne, California (MCC-X).

Boeing has its Starliner capsule, which will launch atop a ULA Atlas V with astronauts Chris Ferguson, Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann inside for the first crewed test. The date is yet to be determined. Boeing will have the Starliner (CST-100) launch at NASA’s historic mission control, Johnson Space Center, in Houston.

“This is where astronauts train with the same systems here on Earth that they’re going to use up in space,” said Boeing spokesperson Steven Siceloff.

Celena Dopart, Boeing’s Human Factor Systems Engineer, said it is part of her job to make sure the spacecraft functions well for astronauts. She said the Starliner is a much more streamlined vehicle.

Astronauts can get comfortable with the spacecraft at Johnson Space Control’s Vehicle Mock-Up Facility.

“Form, fit, and function--about as close to the actual spacecraft that flew,” Dopart said.

The Starliner can carry a lot of cargo.

"We've got three seats here and then everything else is meant for cargo," Dopart said.

Sunita Williams knows this spacecraft like the back of their hands.

“I’m a test pilot. I was a helicopter pilot in the Navy,” she said.

Williams, a retired Navy Caption and also the first person to run a marathon in space, was chosen to command the first post-certification Starliner mission. She said she has helped with the capsule’s design and was even give the honor of naming the first Starliner capsule “Calypso.”

"You plan out everything, but you're prepared for the unexpected and you have the preparation in the back of your mind," Williams said.

Williams will also take international partners--other astronauts and cosmonauts--to the International Space Station.

“Leaving from Florida is going to be outstanding. I can’t wait,” Williams said.

These commercial vehicles’ payloads will take more than trained astronauts to the ISS, it will take science experiments and tools to do more research as well as private tourists.

"There are all kinds of people who want to go into space for all kinds of reason for research, for tourism, " Stich said.

“There are lots of business opportunities in space. Things we haven’t even dreamed of,” Shireman said.

While NASA prepares to build a commercial economy in space, these companies and their teams are testing to get one step closer to proving their spacecrafts are ready.

SpaceX recently announced that it’s manned Demo-2 launch with Dragon will take place in May. The company also announced this week that it will be flying four tourists into space within the next two years.

As for Boeing, it is working with NASA on its next steps towards its manned Starliner flight.

“It’s going to be amazing to come back home,” Williams said.