April 19, 2011

NASA Awards Space Taxi Development Agreements

As its shuttles are soon to retire, NASA has awarded funds to private companies with the goal of flying astronauts on commercial spaceships to and from the International Space Station by 2015.

More than $269 million was awarded to four companies: Boeing, Space Exploration Technology (SpaceX), Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), says the agency.

"We're committed to safely transporting U.S. astronauts on American-made spacecraft and ending the outsourcing of this work to foreign governments," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

"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."

Boeing, if its goals set by NASA are achieved, stands to gain $92.3 million to support its Houston team in the development of their capsule design called CST-100. The capsule would be able to transport up to seven astronauts to the space station, reports BBC News.

SpaceX, a Hawthorne, California company founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk has been awarded $75 million. The company has already flown a rocket called Falcon 9 and a capsule called Dragon. The $75 million will help the company advance Dragon's crew-carrying capabilities.

SNC, already given funds by NASA in the past, will receive another $80 million from the agency's Commercial Crew Development (CCD) effort, reports BBC News. The company will further develop its Dream Chaser, a shuttle-like vehicle that would launch atop a rocket.

And finally, Blue Origin will be receiving $22 million. The Kent, Washington company was founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos. Although much of its space development activity has been kept a secret, NASA funding will help the company's cone-shaped crew vehicle with its advancement.

Twenty-two companies were eligible for the funds, but only four will receive funds at this round of CCD program competition, acting director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Philip McAlister told reporters.

"At this stage of the game, competition is a very important part of our strategy," McAlister said. "We also believe that having skin in the game is important."

Space flights have already been turned over to Russia at a cost of $51 million per astronaut, reports, Reuters. In 2014, the price is expected to increase to $63 million per person.

"Leveraging private investment is the only way NASA can make its dollars go farther in these times of belt tightening," says John Gedmark, executive director of Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

He further adds, "And by investing in commercial spaceflight rather than continuing to send billions of dollars to Russia, NASA commercial crew program is creating American jobs instead of sending them abroad."

Companies are expected to invest their own resources as well as the funds received by the government.

The funds and the agreement between the company and NASA cover about 14 months of development, with possible future competition to help further advancements of an actual flight system. Reuter reports that NASA's goal is to be able to buy commercial orbital space transportation services by the year 2015.

Other companies developing a space system that did not get funding this round include: Orbital Sciences Corp, Alliant Techsystems and United Space Alliance. Currently, Orbital Sciences has contracts with NASA to fly cargo. Alliant Techsystems has proposed a new rocket that is based on the space shuttle booster, and United Space Alliance wanted money to study the possibility of flying the shuttles commercially instead of retiring them.


Image Caption: Sierra Nevada's Dreamchaser docks with the International Space Station. Credit: Sierra Nevada


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