Boeing and tech specialists SpaceX have won NASA commissions to send astronauts into orbit, starting in 2017. NASA ditched its own shuttle program in 2011, leaving the US reliant on Russian rockets for transport.
A Cape Canaveral launch, long the symbol of US forays out of the Earth's atmosphere, could once again take place as soon as 2017. US space agency NASA announced on Tuesday that it had picked aerospace giant Boeing and specialist company SpaceX as the private providers of spacecraft capable of carrying people.
At Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden named the winners, saying the deal would end the US reliance on Russian transport rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
The Soyuz capsules have been the only available means of ISS transport since NASA canned its own space shuttle program in 2011. China, the only other country capable of sending astronauts into orbit, is not a member of the 15-country space station partnership.
Soyuz flights to the station currently cost NASA around $70 million (54 million euros) per trip - but then the private tenders are liable to cost the space agency much more. Political tension with Russia has added an extra element to the equation in recent months.
NASA has spent about $1.5 billion since 2010 investing in partner companies as part of its commercial crew program - with Boeing and SpaceX typically picking up the available tenders.
Tuesday's deals were worth a combined $6.8 billion, with $4.2 billion going to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX to develop, certify and fly their capsules.
Inside a Dragon, propelled by a Falcon
SpaceX, run by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, perhaps best known as the CEO of electric sports car manufacturer Tesla, has already flown its Dragon capsules to the ISS with material supplies. (A Dragon capsule docked with the ISS can be seen in the picture at the top of this article.) The company intends to modify the vessel so that it can carry up to seven passengers. SpaceX also produces a rocket, the Falcon 9, capable of carrying the vessel into orbit.
"SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us," Musk said after the deal was inked. "It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species."
Boeing, meanwhile, is developing a CST-100 spaceship, to launch on the back of Atlas 5 rockets built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between arms giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The somewhat ungainly name stands for Crew Space Transportation, with the number 100 referring to 100 kilometers (62 miles), the accepted altitude at which space officially begins.
NASA turned down a bid from privately-owned Sierra Nevada Corp., which had submitted a winged design rather reminiscent of the NASA shuttles that were grounded in 2011.
NASA has set a goal of 2017 for the first manned flight to take off from Cape Canaveral, the only planned launch site for the new era of public-private ISS transport flights from US soil.
msh/cmk (AFP, AP, Reuters)