Boeing Co. and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will split as much as $6.8-billion (U.S.) in federal funding to help the U.S. resume manned missions and end its dependence on Russian rockets.
The contract to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station will pay a maximum of $4.2-billion to Boeing and $2.6-billion to closely held SpaceX, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Tuesday. A third contender, Sierra Nevada Corp., was shut out.
The award caps a competition for the right to build the first U.S. manned craft since NASA retired the shuttle fleet in 2011. The agency now uses Russia's Soyuz rockets to get people to the station, an arrangement that costs about $70-million a seat and is entangled in tensions with President Vladimir Putin over the crisis in Ukraine.
"We are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation's sole reliance on Russia by 2017," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement. "Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars."
NASA is charting a new direction 45 years after sending humans to the moon, looking to private industry to take over human missions near Earth with reusable craft while focusing its resources on far-off missions. The space agency is preparing the first rockets to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit in four decades.
"I'm giddy today," Bolden said at a news conference at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. "I couldn't be happier."
Boeing and SpaceX may each conduct as many as six missions as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, NASA said. Payments will depend on the contractors achieving five milestones to be set by the agency before the spacecraft are certified as safe for human flight.
The award advances Musk's ambitions for Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station, to become a force in the global aerospace industry. Musk, 43, who also leads electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc., has set an ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars.
Vertical Landings SpaceX's Dragon v2 capsule, which seats seven, was designed with an eye to interplanetary travel, able to land vertically anywhere on Earth "with the precision of a helicopter," according to the company's website, instead of parachuting into the ocean like early U.S. spacecraft in the 1960s and '70s.
Boeing's seven-passenger CST-100 has roots in the Apollo lunar-missions era, and its return to Earth would be cushioned by air bags and parachutes, according to the company's website. Chicago-based Boeing was the only competitor to complete all of NASA's design milestones on time.
The propulsion systems selected by the entrants also complicated NASA's decision. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which would power the Dragon V2 capsule, exploded during an Aug. 22 test flight. Musk said afterward in a Twitter post: "Rockets are tricky."
The Atlas V boosters chosen by Boeing have a flawless record launching high-priced military payloads. The challenge: The United Launch Alliance rockets rely on Russian-made RD-180 engines whose availability is threatened by tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
Boeing was a crucial partner in NASA's Apollo and shuttle programs, and the United Launch Alliance, its joint venture with Lockheed Martin Corp., has an exclusive contract to carry U.S. military payloads. Musk challenged that role in a lawsuit.
While SpaceX's Dragon V2 capsule can be flown only on the company's Falcon 9 booster, Boeing's CST-100 could be fitted atop four different rockets, including its competitor's launch vehicle.
For now, Russian and American astronauts continue to train together for Soyuz missions amid strained ties between the two countries. Irked by sanctions imposed in the Ukraine standoff, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested via Twitter in April that the U.S. consider sending crews to space "with a trampoline."
U.S. astronauts are slated to blast off for the space station in Russian launch vehicles on Sept. 25 and Nov. 23, according to a schedule posted on NASA's website.