NASA on Tuesday awarded a pair of much-anticipated contracts, worth up to $6.8 billion combined, to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station to Boeing and SpaceX in a deal that would allow the U.S. to launch astronauts into space from U.S. soil for the first time in years.
Speaking from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the contracts set "the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human spaceflight.” Relying so heavily on contractors to take astronauts to space would allow the agency “to focus on an even more ambitious mission-that of sending humans to Mars, ” he said.
The announcement of the “commercial crew” awards is a big step toward allowing the U.S. to end its reliance on Russia, which has been ferrying American astronauts to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttle three years ago. The arrangement hasn’t been cheap: the Russians currently charge $71 million per seat, and NASA has in a single year sent more than $400 million to Russia for these taxi rides. If the schedule doesn’t slip, and Boeing and SpaceX prove their vehicles are safe, NASA should see its astronauts launched on U.S. soil with American rockets by as early as 2017.
The awards represent a significant shift for NASA, which has long owned and operated its own rockets. Instead of going to space on government-owned vehicles, NASA’s astronauts would essentially rent space on ships provided by Boeing and SpaceX.
The contracts “highlight what commercial companies can accomplish and we are counting on them to deliver our most precious cargo, ” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.
In addition to continuing to develop and test the companies’ vehicles, each contract calls for up to six flights to the space station once the ships are certified by NASA.
NASA announced that it was awarding contracts to Boeing and SpaceX on Tuesday, to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependency on Russia for transportation. (Reuters)
Boeing’s contract is worth up to $4.2 billion; SpaceX’s is valued at $2.6 billion. Lueders would not say exactly why Boeing received more but indicated that SpaceX proposed doing the work for less. Both contracts “have the same requirements and the companies proposed the value for which they were able to do the work, and the government accepted that, ” she said.
For SpaceX, which is already the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station, the award is further evidence that it has transformed from start-up to a major a player in an industry long dominated by large, traditional companies, such as Boeing.
The two companies represent vastly different cultures in the space industry. Boeing is a so-called “old space” stalwart with decades of experience, contacts and lobbying might. SpaceX is the upstart California-based company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk that has gleefully played the role of disrupter.
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