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Boeing to send first unmanned ‘Space Taxi’ to the ISS in 2017

Boeing has scheduled their first unmanned test flight of commercial CST-100 for early 2017. Boeing is among a trio of American aerospace firms that are on a mission to restore America’s capability to fly humans to Earth orbit and the International Space Station. The trio includes SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp.

Chris Ferguson, commander of NASA’s final shuttle flight, is now spearheading the Boeing’s “space taxi” project as director of Crew and Mission Operations.

“It’s been over 1000 days and counting since we landed [on STS-135],” Ferguson noted.

The last shuttle flight (STS-135), commanded by Ferguson, was in July 2011. Since then no American astronauts have launched to space from American soil on American rockets and spaceships.

Since July 2011, American astronauts have been dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule to shuttle them to and from the ISS. However, Ferguson and the Boeing team hope to change the situation, and soon.

The goal is to get Americans back into space from U.S. soil and provide reliable and cost-effective U.S. access to destinations in low Earth orbit like the ISS and the proposed private Bigelow space station.

Boeing has reserved a launch slot at Cape Canaveral with United Launch Alliance (ULA) for early 2017. The first flight of CST-100 will be unmanned. If all goes well, the maiden CST-100 orbital test flight with humans would follow around mid-2017.

“NASA wants us to provide [crew flight] services by November 2017,” said Ferguson.

The plan is for the CST-100 to launch atop an Atlas V rocket and carry seven crew members as well as a mix of cargo to the ISS.

Ferguson says that while they are confident in their ability to make it all the way to the ISS, that the real question is if they can make the owners of the space station comfortable with what they are doing.

“As the next year progresses and the design matures and it becomes more refined and we understand our own capability,” says Ferguson, “and NASA understands our capabilities as the space station program gets more involved —  then I’m sure they will put the same rigor into our plan as they did into the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences plans.”

So the future looks promising. But Boeing’s success is largely dependent on NASA funding levels approved by Congress. And that vital funding has been rather short on supply. It has already caused significant delays to the start of the space taxi missions for all three companies contending for NASA’s commercial crew contracts because of the significant slashes to the agency’s CCP budget request, year after year.

“No Bucks, No Buck Rogers,” says Ferguson.

Congress is currently deliberating NASA’s Fiscal 2015 budget. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said he will beg Congress to approve full funding for the commercial crew program this year – on his hands and knees if necessary.

Otherwise there will be further delays to the start of the space taxi missions. And the direct consequence is NASA would be forced to continue buying US astronaut rides from the Russians at $70 Million per seat. All against the backdrop of Russian actions in the Ukraine where deadly clashes potentially threaten US access to the ISS in a worst case scenario if the ongoing events spin even further out of control and the West ratchets up economic sanctions against Russia.