NASA and Boeing have unveiled a mock up of the Crew Space Transport (CST-100) space capsule. In an event held at Boeing’s Houston Product Support Center in Texas, members of the press were invited to view a fully outfitted test version of the spacecraft. As part of the proceedings, two NASA astronauts kitted-out in flight suits conducted tests on working in the capsule. The CST-100 is a manned spacecraft being developed by Boeing as one of three American companies working on NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative, the purpose of which is to develop a privately owned and operated US replacement for the Space Shuttle to ferry crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). It’s designed to carry five passengers and crew, though it can carry as many of seven astronauts or a combination of passengers and cargo.
The capsule’s design is like an enlarged version of the Apollo Command Module, though it dispenses with the earlier welded hull in favor of a spun shell and upgraded thermal protection. According to NASA, this allows for reduced mass and improved manufacture time. Inside, the CST-100 uses modern technology, such as LED lighting and improved avionics for greater automatic control.
"What you're not going to find is 1,100 or 1,600 switches," says Chris Ferguson, director of Boeing's Crew and Mission Operations. "When these guys go up in this, their primary mission is not to fly this spacecraft, they're primary mission is to go to the space station for six months. So we don't want to burden them with an inordinate amount of training to fly this vehicle. We want it to be intuitive."
Monday’s event included two four-hour demonstration sessions by astronauts Serena Aunon and Randy Bresnik. Wearing standard NASA orange launch-and-entry suits, they tested moving about inside the capsule while Boeing engineers monitored communications, equipment, and ergonomics.
These tests are more than just a photo op or a very large Boeing advert. Even in an era of computer models and virtual reality, mock ups are an extremely important way to identify shortcomings in design. By letting astronauts practice inside a dummy spacecraft, engineers can find all sorts of defects ranging from a switch that's difficult to operate to an emergency hatch lever that’s an inch too far from the seats.
"These are our customers. They're the ones who will take our spacecraft into flight, and if we're not building it the way they want it we're doing something wrong," says Ferguson. "We'll probably make one more go-around and make sure that everything is just the way they like it."