NASA has awarded Boeing and SpaceX contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. For Hawthorne-based SpaceX, it’s a big victory as well as a big challenge.
Ever since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, the agency has been forced to rely on the Russians to ferry humans into space, which has been expensive and increasingly problematic geopolitically.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was excited announcing the deals to take the space taxi private.
“I’m giddy today,” Bolden said. “I have to admit, I couldn’t be happier.”
Boeing is almost a century old and has lots of experience with manned space vehicles. SpaceX is barely a decade old. Its spacecraft has only carried cargo. Luckily, founder Elon Musk and his team designed the craft — called Dragon — with more precious cargo in mind.
“It wasn’t that they thought, ‘Let’s do cargo and then we’ll think about people later,'" said Scott Hubbard, who teaches aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University. “I remember Elon saying once he was designing a capsule to go anywhere in the solar system.”
Under its deal with NASA, SpaceX has to perform a test flight with an astronaut in three years and perfect an emergency crew-abort system.
“They have to pull the capsule off the vehicle at maximum aerodynamic pressure — meaning while it’s flying at several thousand miles per hour in the atmosphere — and land the capsule safely,” said Greg Autry, who teaches at USC’s Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
If that sounds really difficult, Autry says that’s because it is.
“Nobody’s ever done it,” he said. “The Americans haven’t done it, the Russians haven’t done it, the Chinese haven’t actually done that.”
Even still, Autry says that given Musk and SpaceX’s track record, he’s optimistic they can pull off human space flight.
Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia, which also makes unmanned space station shipments, did not vie for crew-carrying privileges, the Associated Press reports.
Boeing's entry was also a capsule, called CST-100, according to the AP. The letters stand for Crew Space Transportation, and the number refers to 100 kilometers or 62 miles, the official start of space.
Sierra Nevada had the most novel entry, a winged, lifting body vehicle strongly reminiscent of NASA's space shuttle, according to the AP. Its name: Dream Chaser.
Both the CST-100 and Dream Chaser called for flying atop an Atlas V rocket, according to the AP. The manned SpaceX capsule would use the company's own Falcon 9 rocket. Cape Canaveral will be the sole launch site.
NASA paid each of these three major contenders hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to spur development, the AP reports. The new contracts are worth billions.
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin company in Washington state received NASA funding in the early rounds of competition, then said it would continue working on its own, unfunded by the government, according to the AP. The company has given sparse details about its progress and intent.
This story has been updated.