Right Stuff, Wrong Time
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Credit: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle / AP
Back at Boeing, Ferguson was more restrained, but he couldn't help evincing some of Bowersox's doubts. As we stood next to a model of the company's space capsule, the seven-person CST-100, a Boeing public relations officer showed me a diagram of a space station built with inflatable modules that is being developed by one of the company's partners, Bigelow Aerospace. "They've talked about having a hotel in space," she chirped. Ferguson registered his skepticism: "The space tourism business is kind of this nebulous thing." Later, when the Boeing flack joked that the future of space was so bright that Ferguson would become "king of the lunar colony," he shot back: "I'll be dead by the time there's a lunar colony."

Ferguson had gotten excited about a recent trip to Boeing's program managers school in St. Louis, and he clearly relished his new role as the corporation's principal liaison to NASA's crew office. "Boeing is a wonderful company with great engineers," Ferguson told me, "but sometimes knowing the right person to ask the question of is worth a million dollars." Ferguson's problem is that his new job still depends on the agency he left. His primary role at Boeing is to design the crew systems for the CST-100 capsule, which is competing with SpaceX's Dragon, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, and several other vehicles to win a NASA contract to bring crews to the ISS. If the CST-100 doesn't get selected, Ferguson says the project could very well be canceled, which means he would likely find himself out of a job.

When I asked Ferguson about his current responsibilities, he told me that helping develop a new spacecraft was the best job a pilot could possibly have. But he left little doubt that even though he's adjusted to his new corporate life at Boeing, he'll never really get over that other life he gave up just last year. "To be the commander of a spaceship, just kind of hanging out there 600 feet below the ISS as you're getting ready to enter the final stages of docking – that's really a pinch-me moment," he said while we were sitting in the very terrestrial Boeing cafeteria. "You look up and the whole thing is so large you have to move your head from one end of the window to the other just to see it. You try to bring people along with you vicariously. You can't, but if you could, if they could be there, they'd see it, and they'd say, 'This is so incredibly important. How could we ever pause for even a moment?'"