Chris Ferguson: Drexel University’s Starman

If you’ve heard the phrase once this summer, you’ve heard it 100 times: “low-Earth orbit,” which signifies an altitude in space between 100 and 1,300 miles above Earth. It happens to be where the International Space Station (ISS) lives. It also happens to be of special significance to Drexel University, because alumnus-astronaut Chris Ferguson is going there. Again.

Chris Ferguson
Chris Ferguson ’84

Ferguson (mechanical engineering ’84), who has flown three space shuttle missions—two as commander—will return to low-Earth orbit as a test pilot for Boeing on what will likely be the world’s first commercial human-rated spacecraft. The launch from Cape Canaveral is scheduled for mid-2019. The spacecraft will visit ISS with Ferguson, a small NASA crew, and a cargo of time-critical biological research.

NASA’s spaceflight program is being resuscitated after a seven-year hiatus during which it did not launch a single astronaut from American soil. As part of a new public-private chapter in space travel, two aerospace companies—Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—were selected to build separate, competing ships under billion-dollar NASA contracts awarded during the Obama administration. And public interest in space travel is returning like an old friend as the drumroll intensifies between them.

The race, as it were, is on.

Sometime next year, Ferguson will find himself at the controls of the sparkling-new CST-100 Starliner, a next-generation space capsule developed by Boeing with Ferguson’s decades of experience serving as true north. As a director-level employee since he was hired in 2012, Ferguson has overseen Starliner’s missions systems and crew interfaces -- a fancy way of saying his fingerprints “are all over this spacecraft.”

During a recent phone conversation from Houston where he is in training, Ferguson’s awe toward his task was apparent. Even after logging 40 days in space. Even after 5,700 hours flying high-performance aircraft. Even after landing fighter jets on a 500-foot-long strip of aircraft carrier as part of his former day job.

It’s a sign not only of who Ferguson is, but of how well Boeing has chosen.

“I sorta hated to see the shuttle program go away. And while I realized it was an aging program, now, after seven years of being involved with trying to get the replacement going, I really see how difficult it is,” said Ferguson. “When human lives and a national reputation are at stake, you want to make sure everything is just right.

“Space is hard,” he added. “But I would go as often as someone would ask.”

First, an Engineer

Ferguson has been flying—as Navy pilot, NASA pilot, engineering test pilot, Boeing test pilot—his whole career. At 56, he is nearly the same age as NASA itself, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Ferguson didn’t know as a student at the College of Engineering nearly 35 years ago that he would wind up an astronaut. But in view of his close association with the late Dr. Richard Mortimer—former professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics (MEM) and mentor to two other Drexel astronauts—perhaps the handwriting was already on the wall.

The Drexel graduate received his commission from the US Navy ROTC in 1984 and his Navy wings in 1986. He served as an F-14 Tomcat pilot with the VF-11 “Red Rippers,” a legendary fighter squadron deployed to the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian oceans aboard the USS Forrestal. He was accepted into Navy Fighter Weapons School, popularly known as “TOPGUN,” completing that program in 1991, and then served as a TOPGUN instructor.

Ferguson was selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 1998. He logged his first 12 days in space as pilot on the space shuttle Atlantis in 2006, and returned to ISS again aboard Endeavor in 2008. Then, in 2011, he commanded the final shuttle flight to ISS on Atlantis, effectively closing out NASA’s space shuttle program. The College of Engineering held a launch party for the event with over 100 students watching on a big-screen TV. Students also designed a special mission patch for Ferguson to wear on his flight suit.

Ferguson retired from NASA in 2011. After that, he was somewhat adrift. It was not an easy place to be, he said, for an “adrenaline junkie engineer.”

“I thought I had achieved everything I wanted in life when I had a chance to fly a space shuttle. But after we finished up, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was thinking of going back and working at Drexel,” said Ferguson. “But then Boeing came along and said, ‘We want you to help us build this thing, and maybe fly it one day.’ And I thought, how many engineers get to do this?

Chris Ferguson in the Starliner Capsule
Chris Ferguson in the Starliner Capsule

“I remember as a kid looking at a rocket on television and thinking, wow, how does that work? As an engineer, to learn about the physical properties and the mechanical properties, and then to be in a position to fly it … it’s just the best job in the world. A lot of people say that about their jobs. But I think I win.”

As both an engineer and a shuttle pilot, Ferguson has a rare perspective that Boeing found irresistible. A mere handful of individuals in the world can lay claim to his experience.

“Chris was the perfect choice to join Boeing’s Starliner team,” said Leanne Caret, president and CEO, Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “Not only does he bring years of expertise and experience from his time at NASA and the US Navy, but he is an incredible leader with the skills and passion required for a very challenging assignment.”

For his own part, Ferguson believes his competence is put to best use when he is weighing systems on, so to speak, a higher level.

“In the early designs of Starliner, when you’re coming up with conceptual ideas of how this will work, a lot of it is based on analysis. You theorize it will work and then you analyze it with engineering tools,” said Ferguson. “But in the end, it really has to meet that sanity test: will this system work the way we intended it to?

“I think I’m a pretty darn good engineer. But engineers get themselves in trouble. We’ve become very dependent on software and analysis tools, and it’s like plug-and-chug. We need to scrutinize that at a higher level and have someone look at the synchronized systems. You need the ability to say, I think you’re all right here and here and here. But here … I’m not so sure.

“The tools are wonderful. They enable us to build parts one at a time, put them together, have them fit, and have them work. But it does take a bit of critical human thinking beyond that.”

Ferguson, who earned his Drexel degree in mechanical engineering, also holds a Master of Science in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. He received an honorary degree from Drexel in 2009, the same year he was named the College of Engineering’s Engineering Leader of the Year and was presented with the Silver Dragon Award. He continues to serve today on the Dean’s Executive Advisory Council, College of Engineering, and is a member of the President’s Parents Council. He is hosting a Drexel alumni event at Cape Canaveral in February to welcome newly appointed College of Engineering Dean Sharon Walker, PhD, to her role.

Ferguson has won numerous service awards including the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Navy Strike/Flight Air Medal, NASA Spaceflight Medal (three), the Navy Commendation Medal (three) and the Navy Achievement Medal. He grew up in Philadelphia. Ferguson is the father of a Drexel graduate and still calls Blue Bell, PA, home.

NASA and Boeing, Together Again and Again

Every American spacecraft carrying astronauts into space—from Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo to the various shuttles—has been designed and built by Boeing or a Boeing heritage company, as was the very first US module of the ISS placed in orbit in November 1998. So it was a natural choice for NASA when it went looking for companies on which to bestow contracts for next-generation space flight.

Under the auspices of its Commercial Crew Program, NASA will increasingly pass off low-Earth orbit and ISS flights to commercial ventures like those spearheaded by Boeing. That way, it can concentrate on deep space missions.

Another expressed purpose of the contracts is to end America’s sole reliance on Russia for trips to ISS.

The Boeing and SpaceX contracts, together worth nearly $7 billion, were awarded in 2014 under the Obama administration. The larger of the two contracts, for $4.2 billion, went to Boeing.

Eventually, tourists, technicians, and assorted other Earthlings will be rocketed into space on a regular basis. Some of them, at least during the early stages, will be millionaires. Some of them will be corporate clients overseeing corporate payloads. Some of them may be manufacturers, laying down an infrastructure that provides stepping-off points for Mars and beyond. But right now, where the Starliner is concerned, NASA is essentially a Boeing client. This means that if the test flights and ensuing capsule designs are successful, the market for others to purchase seats aboard Boeing spacecraft will grow exponentially.

“The question remains whether commercial spaceflight will change the way astronauts are trained or who they work for,” said Ferguson, who has lately acquired the moniker “corporate astronaut.” It’s a title he doesn’t know exactly how to take. He acknowledged that, for both himself and NASA, there has been a bit of a learning curve in ceding spaceflight to what may be a long line of non-NASA astronauts.

Starliner Capsule
Starliner Capsule

In the meantime, Ferguson loves his shiny new spaceship. Sitting atop an Atlas V rocket—itself a proven commodity with 100% mission success across 70 successful launches—Starliner is a reusable spacecraft. It combines capsule architecture, material, and subsystem technologies with 21st century innovations. Its weldless design eliminates the structural risks of traditional welds and has reduced mass and production time. It has a “pusher” early-abort system that makes the liftoff and ascent safer—“we’re giving them an ejection seat,” said Ferguson—by many orders of magnitude.

The spacecraft also utilizes a parachute and airbag system that permits land-based returns, as opposed to the water-based landings of the past. This is another first for a capsule built in the United States.

Unlike the shuttles that Ferguson flew, Starliner has complete autonomous capability, able to fly, dock, re-enter, and land entirely through its own flight systems. And whereas the shuttles had upwards of 1,100 switches, dials, circuits, and other controls on its dashboard, the Starliner has about 40. Display capability, Ferguson said, has advanced enormously.

“Now, I know where all the photon blasters are located,” he joked.

Chris Ferguson in space suit
Chris Ferguson in space suit

For launch and re-entry, Ferguson will wear a “Boeing Blue” suit he helped design. Its features make it 40% lighter than the shuttle suits he used to wear. It has a softer helmet with a zipper instead of latches, and a hard cranial band for protection; a dual suit controller that keeps pressure inside the suit constant; mobility joints at the shoulders and elbows for flexibility of movement; lightweight leather gloves for dexterity when using touch pads and tablets; breathable leg pockets to store tools and personal items; and lightweight footwear designed in collaboration with Reebok.

The Starliner team is currently moving through integrated testing on its structural, environmental, parachute, and propulsion systems. Astronaut training is in full swing. Operational preparations are underway. Landing and recovery run-throughs, flight simulations, and launch preparations continue apace. An uncrewed test flight is scheduled for later this year or early next. The crewed launch with Ferguson at the controls is scheduled for about a year from now.

One final novelty, Starliner’s crew access tower—including a crew access arm and white room 170 feet above the launch pad—is the first built along the Florida Space Coast since the Apollo era.

Calling All Space ‘Visionaries’

Since the shuttle program closed down in 2011, the United States has not had an independent means to travel to ISS – an orbiting, laboratory outpost comprising the largest spacecraft ever built. It has 15 partner nations. NASA has relied on Russia to get its astronauts and technicians back and forth, and they’ve been cooperative, selling seats to US astronauts on Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan. But the single-string access grates.

“The Russians have been very good business partners,” said Ferguson. “But you don’t have to do any more than read the newspapers to know that our relationship has changed over the last few years. It’s a matter of national strategy that we have a way to get people back and forth to the space station we built.”

To that end, Ferguson’s daily tasks vary enormously. On the afternoon of his phone call from Houston, he had an introductory briefing for a series of tests measuring crew workload. Two days later, he would head back to Cape Canaveral for additional oversight and perhaps a stopover in Decatur, AL to see how the craft’s rockets are coming together. Much of his time is spent watching flight software. Seated in front of the flight simulation monitors, he keeps several crucial questions in mind: how does the crew interact with the vehicle; does everything meet expectations; when does the crew need to know what it needs to know?

It isn’t glamorous work, Ferguson said. But he doesn’t want any surprises in space.

Drexel’s College of Engineering has graduated three astronauts. Along with Ferguson, there is James P. Bagian (’73, who had a 15-year career at NASA with two flights, and is also a former Drexel trustee) and Paul Richards (’87, who flew aboard “Discovery” in 2001, and just delivered the 2018 commencement address to the College). The hope is that many more will follow their stellar paths. Indeed, Boeing’s NASA contract has already stipulated six crew rotation missions to the ISS. Frequent low-Earth orbit travel is in the cards.

Ferguson believes the future is wide open to creative minds in exactly the way the advent of personal computers enabled its own brave new world: while technologically exquisite on their own terms, personal computers weren’t relatable until people thought up the internet, applications, gaming systems, and other platforms to make them relatable.

So it is with Starliner and other commercial spacecraft being developed by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and others yet to come.

“This is a college student’s dream,” said Ferguson. “The future of commercial human spaceflight is almost a blank slate right now. The engineers coming out of schools like Drexel will have an opportunity to shape that future. We are now building a human pathway to space that can be marketed commercially. But the true value of what we are building will not be realized until we create destinations and businesses to justify the journey beyond just NASA’s needs.

“We need today’s visionaries to create the commerce that will be using this new highway to space.”