Boeing and SpaceX Awarded $6.8 Billion Space Taxi Contract

Sep 16, 2014 07:55 PM EDT

NASA officially announced today that private companies Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Boeing aerospace will be the lucky pioneers who will be bringing human space travel back to the United States and into the private sector.

The announcement was made late Tuesday afternoon by a panel of NASA officials, experts, and private sector representatives, including NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, Commercial Crew program manager Kathryn Lueders, and astronaut Michael Fink.

Bolden in particular was grinning like a toddler on his birthday as he announced that human spaceflight was once again returning to US soil, and being placed in the hands of US companies.

"I'm giddy today," he admitted to the press. "I couldn't be happier."

According to Bolden, this major decision was one of the hardest the agency has ever had to make, but it was more of a question of who would be getting the contracts, not if they were going to be awarded at all.

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Since NASA retired its costly space shuttle program in 2011, US astronauts have been bumming rides to the International Space Station (ISS) on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which are limited to bringing only three crew members at a time. Not only did this limit what kind of research could be conducted at the orbital lab, but it also was costing the agency $70 million a seat - a stunningly hefty cab fare.

This arrangement has been threatened, however, with increasing tension between the United States and Russia following the Russian occupation of Ukraine, and the United States had turned to its private sector for new options.

"I realize we're in a very tenuous position with our Russian relationship," former shuttle astronaut Chris Ferguson had told reporters during the unveiling of Boeing's manned capsule, the CTS-100, last July. "But I'm very confident we're gonna get [to the ISS] either way." (Scroll to read on...)

And it looks like he was right. According to NASA, Boeing and SpaceX were just two of several companies, including Sierra Nevada Corp., that were vying to become that hypothetical "way." The pair were simply deemed the most qualified and most prepared to be ready for final mission approval in 2017.

"I applaud all our private sector for their innovation, their hard work, and most of all their patriotism," Bolden said on Tuesday. "This wasn't an easy choice, but it's the best choice for NASA and this nation."

Interestingly, while SpaceX continues to be a leader in commercial ISS missions, with three successful unmanned cargo deliveries to the station already under its belt, it was actually Boeing who was awarded a larger portion of the $6.8 billion contract.

SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion, and Boeing got the remaining $4.2 billion. And while neither of these sums is something to sneeze at, Lueders of the Commercial Crew program would not explain the disparity.

Instead, she reiterated again and again that both companies are still expected to be prepared for a maximum of six flights taxiing astronauts to the ISS for the first time by 2017.

"We are excited to see our industry partners close in on operational flights to the International Space Station, an extraordinary feat industry and the NASA family began just four years ago," she said in a statement. "The agency and our partners have many important steps to finish, but we have shown we can do the tough work required and excel in ways few would dare to hope."

And one of those steps is going to be actually making a test run to the station with at least one NASA inspector on board. (Scroll to read on...)

Lueders added that she knows that "the industry is up to the challenge ahead," but things are going to be taken as slowly and deliberately as possible for the sake of safety. If neither company can make the 2017 deadline, she adds, it won't be skin off the agency's teeth.

"We are counting on them to deliver our most precious cargo," she said.

The spacecraft in question, the Dragon V2 and the CST-100, will first be expected to carry only four astronauts at a time up to the ISS, even though both state-of-the-art models were designed to carry more. The Dragon, for instance, can carry seven seated comfortably - just like with America's iconic shuttles. And while they will be carrying less passengers, they will still be required to tote a significant amount of supplies and laboratory equipment as well.

"These spacecraft are going to make the trip a bit easier," astronaut Mike Fink excitedly added on Tuesday.

Fink admitted that he's most excited about the potential to bring more crew to the ISS. Working in maximum teams of three at a time on the space station, US astronauts have still managed to conduct some stunning scientific work since 2011, with this most recently returned ISS crew managing to log nearly 80 hours of scientific work within a single week.

"It just boggles the mind to think of the possibilities of what were going to accomplish now," said Fink.

The astronaut added that he has great faith that these "terrific machines" can help pioneer a new age of space travel, when even non-astronauts will one day be able to see the Earth from space in person. (Scroll to read on...)

"The view from orbit can affect us very profoundly... It affected me very profoundly," he said.

He went on to explain how he would love to one day see more of the world have that experience, potentially changing their perspective about the planet and life on Earth.

"These two spacecraft are pretty small to carry such a big expectation, but I think they will do well."

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