CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA on Tuesday signaled the end to the long drought of sending astronauts into space from Florida by announcing that the next generation of America’s manned spacecraft will be produced and operated by the private space transportation companies Boeing and SpaceX.
“I am just giddy today, I admit,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “I couldn’t be happier.”
NASA announced a set of multiyear contracts worth $6.8 billion to hire Boeing Space Exploration of Houston and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California, to finish developing their new spacecraft and have them ready to taxi American astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017.
When the new spacecraft are operating, they will provide the first American-based space rides to astronauts since NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011. Both companies will be launching from Cape Canaveral, though likely from pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, rather than from the NASA facilities at Kennedy Space Center.
NASA officials announced the new deals while describing a future in which lower-Earth flights will be expanded to private companies, and therefore eventually to private citizen astronauts.
Boeing will be using its Boeing’s CST-100 vessel, a traditional capsule reminiscent of the Apollo days.
SpaceX will use its Dragon V2, a more modern capsule design based on its Dragon capsule that already has been ferrying NASA supplies to the space station for the past two years.
The two-service arrangement means that NASA is turning both to an old-school aerospace giant, Boeing, and the most prominent of a booming set of 21st-century entrepreneurial space companies, SpaceX, founded by Internet billionaire Elon Musk.
NASA’s decisions means Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., and its space-shuttle-like Dream Chaser vessel are out. Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada were the finalists in NASA’s four-year, $1.55 billion competition to see which private companies could best develop private spacecraft to transport of astronauts into lower Earth orbit.
While NASA’s commercial crew program could use the taxi service as early as 2017, the space agency’s budget challenges make it unlikely that it will actually be able to use the private taxi before 2018 at the earliest.
The space station is expected to remain in use through 2024.
NASA declined to say how much the contracts would be worth, saying the deals were still being worked out.
In the development competition phases, NASA paid Boeing $621 million, SpaceX $545 million and Sierra Nevada $363 million. Five other companies that previously fell out of the competition split the rest of the development money.
The losers in the competition are not expected to drop out of the space taxi business however. Each company has talked about opportunities to ferry private-sector astronauts to commercial stations and satellites that are being planned.
The last time astronauts went to space from Kennedy — or anywhere in America — was the final mission of the space shuttle Atlantis, which came back to Earth on July 21, 2011. Since then American astronauts have been going to and from the space station aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. NASA is paying Russia $1.7 billion to provide that service from 2012 to 2017.
The demise of the space shuttle program in 2011 meant the loss of as many as 10,000 jobs at Kennedy Space Center and an assortment of businesses supporting it on the Space Coast. While the space taxi – officially called the commercial crew vehicle – would help restore a manned space flight mission, the big hope for jobs growth remains tied to NASA’s deep-space plans, which will not begin to materialize until late this decade and in the 2020s.