In a much anticipated announcement, the U.S. space agency finally awarded four commercial companies funds to develop spacecraft that can carry astronauts to space. The awards are part of NASA's commercial crew development program, initiated to utilize the private sector to reduce the gap in American human spaceflight capabilities as the space shuttles are scheduled to retire this year, and the Obama administration has canceled the agency's Constellation program.
"The next American-flagged vehicle to carry our astronauts into space is going to be a U.S. commercial provider," said Ed Mango, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager, in a press release.
The four companies selected: Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which currently has a contract to carry cargo to the International Space Station, will receive $75 million to make its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule ready for humans; Sierra Nevada Corporation will receive $80 million for its space plane design; Boeing will receive $92.3 million for a capsule design; and Blue Origin will receive $22 million to develop its capsule design.
"We're committed to safely transporting U.S. astronauts on American-made spacecraft and ending the outsourcing of this work to foreign governments," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in the press release. Until commercial spacecraft are ready the U.S. will have to rely on the Russians to carry astronauts to space at a cost of more than $50 million per seat. SpaceX's vice president of astronaut safety, Ken Bowersox, told me that the company estimates its seats at $20 million each with a crew of seven, or $140 million per mission.
"These agreements are significant milestones in NASA's plans to take advantage of American ingenuity to get to low-Earth orbit, so we can concentrate our resources on deep space exploration," said Bolden.