NASA is taking its final steps to launching astronauts from American soil again and the first steps in sending humans into deep space and Mars.
The space agency announced that Boeing Co. and SpaceX, both U.S. companies, have landed highly-sought-after Commercial Crew Transportation Contracts to build the spacecraft that will ferry astronauts from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to the International Space Station and back.
The contract covers a minimium of two missions and can be extended to cover up to six.
NASA has a deadline of launching astronauts from American soil by 2017, giving the two companies only a few years to finish their designs, build, test and certify their spacecraft.
"This sets the stage for the most ambitious and exiting chapter of human space flight," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden during a Tuesday afternoon press conference at Kennedy Space Center, which leads the agency's Commercial Crew Program. "The greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on anyone to get into space. Today we're one step closer to launching astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and end our reliance on Russia."
Since the U.S. retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, NASA has depended on Russia to ferry its astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station, paying the Russian space agency about $70 million per astronaut.
That arrangement has proved to be increasingly sticky given the increased tensions between the two countries since Russia's aggressive moves toward Ukraine.
Kathy Lueders, deputy program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, pointed out during the news conference today that both SpaceX and Boeing must meet five certification milestones, including flight readiness, all under NASA oversight. The companies also must conduct a flight test, carrying cargo and one astronaut, to the space station, where it will dock and then return the crew safely home.
Both SpaceX and Boeing have had considerable experience working with NASA.
SpaceX, one of two private companies ferrying supplies, food and scientific experiments to the space shuttle, wants to be the company ferrying humans, as well.
The commercial space company, which aims to populate Mars one day, is scheduled to launch a resupply mission to the space station on Sept. 20 from Cape Canaveral.
As for Chicago-based Boeing, the leading aerospace company is developing a Commercial Crew Vehicle that can be launched on a variety of space vehicles for NASA. The company has been working under a separate $18 million NASA project to develop the systems and key technologies, including life support, avionics and landing systems, needed for a capsule-based commercial crew transport system that can ferry astronauts to the space station.
Boeing appears to be getting some help from a well-known name - Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com Inc.
Bezos has been quietly working to set up Blue Origin LLC, a company focused on developing technologies for private and commercial space flight.
The company has been working with both NASA and Boeing on developing commercial spacecraft. According to The Wall Street Journal, Blue Origin is working with Boeing for the NASA contract to carry astronauts to and from the space station.