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A first look at the path NASA astronauts will walk when the U.S. launches humans into space again

New spacesuits unveiled for NASA astronauts. (Video: The Washington Post)
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — They’ll take the elevator 175 feet above the shoreline, then march 15 steps across the platform and 13 down the grated gangplank to the double doors that open to a small white room. There the astronauts will make their final preparations, adjust their spacesuits, check their equipment, before stepping into the spacecraft.

This is the walk the astronauts will take as part of the NASA’s effort to restore human spaceflights from U.S. soil by 2018, ending an ignominious hiatus that has endured since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.

Now, NASA is depending on two commercial companies — Boeing and SpaceX — to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station, under contracts worth billions of dollars.

Both companies have faced technical and design challenges that have forced them to push back the dates of their initial flights — delays that could prove costly.

But there are growing signs that the companies are making progress, and this week Boeing provided a glimpse of what’s to come, opening up some of its new facilities here for the first time and unveiling its new spacesuit.

A new crew tower at Launch Complex 41, the last place on Earth the astronauts will walk before stepping into the company’s Starliner spacecraft, is one example of the company’s progress. It’s a massive structure, made of 1.4 million pounds of steel, that adds yet another point to the cape’s skyline and offers a penthouse-like view of the shoreline.

Boeing has also built a new mission control room at the Kennedy Space Center, with rows of computer consoles that will one day monitor the rocket’s health, its communications, fuel and navigation systems.

Then there’s the sleek new blue Boeing spacesuit that, at 20 pounds, weighs 10 pounds less than the one worn by shuttle astronauts. It comes with gloves that work on touch screens and lightweight boots designed by Reebok that feel like slippers. Instead of having a huge fishbowl bubble helmet, as the shuttle astronauts’ suits did, the new suit’s helmet slips over the head like a hood.

“We like to think this represents the future of what protective space gear will be,” said Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut and ex-Navy fighter pilot who is now Boeing’s director of crew and mission systems.

Because it’s so lightweight and flexible, Ferguson said, “it feels a lot more like a flight suit than a spacesuit.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is designing its own suit that it has not yet been unveiled. But just across the cape, SpaceX has made visible progress with its new launch site, the historic Pad 39A that was used during the Apollo and shuttle eras.

That launch site, which years ago was rusting away in the salt air, has been completely renovated. Nearby, the company has built a massive rocket hangar that has the SpaceX logo emblazoned across it — a potent symbol of the private sector putting its stamp on the venerable government facility.

SpaceX plans to christen the pad within days, launching the first rocket from 39A since the last shuttle mission, some six years ago.

The work by SpaceX and Boeing is part of a broader effort to transform Cape Canaveral from an area once dominated by the government to what NASA calls a “multi-user spaceport,” one that is home to several commercial companies.

Jeffrey P. Bezos’s Blue Origin is also leasing a launch site here. The company is building a massive 750,000-square-foot facility where it wants to build its New Glenn rocket, which it plans to fly from here by the end of the decade. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Moon Express, which is vying to land a spacecraft on the moon as part of the Google Lunar X Prize, has also had a partnership with NASA to test its lunar lander at the Kennedy Space Center.

But nothing will represent the cape’s renaissance more than the return of human spaceflight from its shores. Boeing and SpaceX are competing to see which company will fly first. SpaceX says its first test flight with passengers is scheduled for May 2018. Boeing plans to make its first uncrewed flight in June 2018, with a two-person test flight in August of that year.

Both companies, however, have faced delays that the NASA inspector general’s office last year warned could force NASA to buy more seats from the Russians, who currently take U.S. astronauts to the space station. The inspector general found that Russia’s price for ferrying U.S. astronauts jumped 284 percent over the past decade, growing from $21.3 million in 2006 to $81.9 million last year.

In its report, the watchdog said it believed that neither company would “achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

In the past, funding shortfalls led to the delays, the inspector general said. But “technical challenges with the contractors’ spacecraft designs are now driving the schedule slippages,” it said.

Boeing’s spacecraft, the Starliner, has had problems with its mass and the effects of vibrations during launch. SpaceX’s delays came when it changed its capsule design to land in the water instead of on land, it said.

Boeing’s Ferguson said that “turning from the design effort to the manufacturing effort became more of a challenge than we anticipated.”

The company has “slogged through some of the real engineering challenges, and now we are getting to the point where those challenges are largely behind us and it’s time to get on to the rubber meeting the road,” he said.

Sunita Williams, one of four NASA astronauts chosen to fly on the first commercial flights, said she is “pumped” by the prospect of launching again from American soil. “We’re getting closer and closer,” she said.

But she acknowledged that the companies still have “a long road and they have a lot to do. But I am really encouraged and excited at the pace at which both companies are taking this challenge. … Things are ticking along. It’s going to happen.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the amount Russia charges to ferry U.S. astronauts had jumped 384 percent. It is 284 percent. This version has been updated.