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21.09.2010 Boeing well-positioned for final frontier

Although uncertainty continues to cloud the long-term future for US space programmes and policy, two recent announcements have made it clear that Boeing is well-positioned whatever comes next.

Over the course of two days, Boeing was awarded a five-year, $1.24 billion NASA contract extension for sustainment of the US portion of the International Space Station and announced a partnership with Virginia-based Space Adventures to ferry non-government passengers to the ISS.

"Our first obligation is to NASA, but we look at the current circumstances as an opportunity to leverage what the government is doing into more non-governmental space business," says Brewster Shaw, former astronaut and vice-president and general manager of Boeing's space exploration division.

"We want to be able to take advantage of that opportunity. And to the degree that we are involved in human spaceflight programmes right now, yes, that gives us an opportunity that is a better opportunity than some others."

The exclusive deal with Space Adventures would make commercially available empty seats on the seven-passenger capsule Boeing is developing to take crew members to ISS after the Space Shuttle programme shuts in 2011. NASA typically sends four new crew members to the ISS at a time, which would leave three seats per CST-100 flight for Space Adventures to sell off for an as-yet undisclosed price, the companies say.

Space Adventures has already sent seven customers into space aboard the same Russian Soyuz spacecraft on which the USA will rely for ISS trips between the final Shuttle mission and the first flight of the next-generation capsule, which is expected in 2015 at the earliest.

Space Adventures' most recent client was Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, who paid around $40 million for his 2009 12-day trip into orbit.

Although neither company will speak specifically about price, Anderson, co-founder and chairman of Space Adventures, says his company's seats aboard the Boeing spacecraft will be "competitive" with Roscosmos Soyuz tickets, which Anderson says Space Adventures will continue to work with as opportunities arise. A series of four test flights is expected until 2014 with the first flight in 2015, depending on federal funding streams.

"We're ready now to start talking to prospective customers. The earlier we start talking to people, the better," says Anderson, who also "politely objects" to the term "space tourist" in reference to Space Adventures' clients going to the ISS.

"It's not really the case that a bunch of people show up to the station in their flowered t-shirts with sunglasses on," he says. "This is much more about private citizens who are opening the frontier alongside government space explorers and are doing so in a very serious fashion with lots of serious work behind it."

The Space Adventures deal is only Boeing's most recent foray into the commercial space arena. At the Farnborough air show in July, the company said it would team up with Bigelow Aerospace - already a partner on capsule development - to build a low-Earth orbit commercial space station by 2015.

But with the Space Adventures deal and the Bigelow space station plan, the commercial ventures are still in need of public funding no-one is certain will come through to close the business case. Human spaceflight is still very much in need of government investment at this point.

"With Boeing investment only, we would not be able to close the business case," says John Elbon, vice-president and programme manager of Boeing's commercial crew transport system, echoing statements made about the Bigelow deal in July. "There are a lot of variables. Certainly more funding would be better. NASA has to decide how many providers they are going to carry though development."

The Bigelow project's aggressive schedule - with assembly in 2014 and testing to include an uncrewed trip to the station - is contingent upon the US Congress coming through with funding for NASA's proposed Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Space Act Agreement programme this fall.

In the meantime - while NASA considers CCDev, related programmes and the future of manned flight, and Congress considers how to fund it all - Boeing will be getting more than $1 billion to manage subsystems, provide on-orbit engineering support and oversee ongoing maintenance for ISS hardware and software over the next five years.

"Boeing's knowledge of the International Space Station allows us to safely fly and operate the station to 2015, set the stage to enable ISS operations until 2020, and potentially extend operations through 2028," says Joy Bryant, Boeing vice-president and ISS programne manager.