LOS ANGELES – Now that NASA has mothballed its fleet of space shuttles, the space agency needs a new ride to the International Space Station.
On Friday, NASA handed out $1.1 billion in contracts to three companies to privately develop rockets and spacecraft for what could be the next step in manned spaceflight. The announcement was made by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on a cloudless day from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The winners included Hawthorne, Calif.-based rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, and Boeing Co., which develops spacecraft in Huntington Beach, Calif., and uses rocket engines made by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Calif.
The other award was given to Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., which is building a space plane that closely resembles a mini-space shuttle.
The goal of the funding “is to bring human spaceflight launches back to U.S. soil and end outsourcing of these important jobs,” Bolden said at the news conference.
The awards are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, which lays the groundwork for the potentially multibillion-dollar job of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
NASA is providing seed money to these companies to compete and create a new private space race. The United States currently has no way to travel to the International Space Station other than shelling out $63 million for rides on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Boeing engineers in Huntington Beach and Houston are working to develop a seven-person spaceship, dubbed the Crew Space Transportation-100, that is designed to fly atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The company won $460 million, the largest of the three awards, and expects the space capsule to be ready for test flights by 2016.
“Today’s award demonstrates NASA’s confidence in Boeing’s approach to provide commercial crew transportation services for the (International Space Station),” John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of space exploration, said in a statement. “It is essential for the ISS and the nation that we have adequate funding to move at a rapid pace toward operations so the United States does not continue its dependence on a single system for human access to the ISS.”
Of the winners, SpaceX is the only company to have its contender spaceflight-proven.
In May, SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and have it dock with the International Space Station. The Dragon capsule was only carrying supplies at the time, but it was a technological and financial feat that had been accomplished before only by the world’s most powerful government entities.
The Dragon capsule is designed to carry seven astronauts, but SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said it still needed upgrades before an astronaut could strap in. The company is aiming for a manned test flight by 2015.
SpaceX won $440 million from NASA to develop its hardware. The space agency has also awarded the company a $1.6 billion contract to have SpaceX’s Dragon deliver cargo to the space station – with trips possibly starting later this year.
“This is a decisive milestone in human spaceflight and sets an exciting course for the next phase of American space exploration,” Musk said in a statement. “SpaceX, along with our partners at NASA, will continue to push the boundaries of space technology to develop the safest, most advanced crew vehicle ever flown.”