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An inside look at Boeing's space taxi

Tony Castilleja wasn't even born when the space shuttle program began. Now, the 27-year-old engineer is hoping to build its replacement. He'd also like to fly inside it someday. "All of us want to," he said.

Castilleja is working on the Boeing CST-100, which stands for Crew Space Transportation vehicle. Its purpose is to ferry crew and cargo into low Earth orbit. A prototype stands inside a facility in Houston, not far from Johnson Space Center.

NASA has already paid the company $460 million to get this far, but Boeing won't know for another month if it will go any farther. That's because Boeing is competing with SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. to build the space taxi NASA wants by 2017 for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. Currently, NASA is paying the Russians about $70 million a seat to go there, and it wants less expensive options, even though it's spent $1.1 billion seeding development by the three competitors.

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All three prototypes offer different-looking capsules, different systems, different ways of landing. In Boeing's case, the CST-100 would launch atop an Atlas V rocket (most likely with a Russian engine), though it has the ability to launch on other rockets, even a Falcon 9 by SpaceX. Boeing will utilize flight computers, parachutes, mission and ground support systems from past programs.

John Mulholland, CST-100's program manager, said this "drives down complexity." It's also very different from the ground-up innovation Elon Musk has pioneered at SpaceX.

"I think, especially in human spaceflight, where you have to be error-free, ... flight-proven hardware and technology drives down the risk to humans," Mulholland said.

Boeing's CST-100 prototype
Jane Wells | CNBC
Boeing's CST-100 prototype

That's not to say there aren't new touches to the CST-100, despite an outward appearance reminiscent of Apollo. Samsung wants to provide Galaxy tablets for astronauts, "to provide the Galaxy in the galaxy," said Castilleja. The seats inside the capsule were created with 3-D printing, and the structural interior has no welds, which will allow the capsule to be reused as many as 10 times.

The craft has also been designed to almost fly itself. A pilot will really just monitor the onboard systems, taking over only if something goes wrong. Inside a simulator, the control panel is much smaller than those from the past, though it's not a glass cockpit. There are still plenty of physical switches and buttons.

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"When you're flying the vehicle, you'll still be in your spacesuit, and you can't really feel when you're touching a screen when you're wearing a glove," said software engineer Jim May, who added that it also helps to have a switch you can hold onto during re-entry, "when the spacecraft may be shaking."

One key element in the competition is that the winner retains ownership of the reusable capsule and can lease it out to other customers. In Boeing's case, Space Adventures wants to sell one of the extra seats onboard to tourists, and Bigelow Aerospace has been consulting with Boeing to lease the entire capsule to launch the space habitats it's designing in Las Vegas.

With that in mind, Boeing has tried to give the CST-100 a more commercial feel. While it can seat seven, it's really designed to carry five. Boeing's space division also reached over to the commercial side of the company and brought in the blue lighting used on 787s and newer 737s.

"It really helps the situational awareness and just the comfort," said Mulholland.

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Castilleja said astronauts are brought in every few months to sit inside and give feedback on the interior. "We're almost at kind of like an inflection in space travel, going from those military-like interiors into this commercial airline feel in spaceflight," he said.

Mulholland won't say how much less it will cost NASA to fly the CST-100 than it currently pays the Russians, only to say it will be "significantly below" $70 million a seat. He cites competitive reasons for not disclosing a figure. He also won't say how much money Boeing has invested of its own money in developing the space taxi, though he says NASA's $460 million investment "has paid the preponderance of the development work to date."

'Look at the business case'

NASA should choose a winner next month. It could pick two winners. Only then will Boeing proceed with the next round of testing, which will include a simulated abort on the launch pad, then an uncrewed mission, then a manned mission.

Boeing is the only contender that has completed all of its testing on time, but if It loses out to SpaceX, which has received $440 million in NASA funding so far, or Sierra Nevada, which received $212.5 million, what then? It has reportedly sent out notices of potential layoffs.

"We'll have to look at the business case," said Mulholland. "I think it would be difficult to close that business case without the backstop of NASA development funding, but our focus right now is all based on how we're going to execute when we do win."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells

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