NASA has announced new agreements with U.S. companies to develop spacecraft so that astronauts once again can launch from the United States. The U.S. has not had that capability since it retired its space shuttle fleet last year. Now it looks like the launches could happen by the end of 2017.
NASA officials say U.S. reliance on Russia to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station could be over by the end of 2017.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden held a news conference Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"Today we're announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies," said Bolden. "We've selected three companies to develop crew transportation capabilities as a fully integrated system and keep us on track to end the outsourcing of our human spaceflight program."
The three companies are the California-based Space Exploration Technologies - commonly known an SpaceX - the Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Texas-based Boeing Company.
"By keeping these three companies in the mix, we not only ensure competition, which is good for the taxpayers, but we're also guaranteeing that we never find ourselves in the situation we're in today - dependent on a sole provider to get our crews to space," said Bolden. "For the next 21 months, these partners will perform tests and complete designs. Through this initiative, NASA will help the private sector design and develop the human spaceflight capability that could ultimately lead to the availability of human spaceflight services for both government and commercial customers."
Seven companies submitted proposals to NASA, and the space agency selected three to sign agreements. NASA says the three companies offer proven track records, as well as diversity. They have proposed two types of spacecraft - a capsule and a lifting body - and two types of launch vehicles - SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and the veteran Atlas V rocket. All three companies would primarily launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
According to the agreements, companies are paid only when they meet set milestones. This so-called "pay for performance" plan helps keep taxpayer costs in check. Sierra Nevada Corporation could earn $212.5 million if it meets all nine milestones. Boeing Company could earn $460 million if it meets its 19 milestones. And SpaceX could earn $440 million if it meets its 14 milestones.
NASA already has a commercial cargo deal with SpaceX, which made history in May with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule. SpaceX is the first and only private company to send a commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station. Regular cargo transportation missions are planned to start later this year.
SpaceX plans to reconfigure the Dragon space capsule to accommodate astronauts.
During a follow-up conference call, NASA's director for commercial spaceflight development, Philip McAlister, said astronauts could launch to the space station from the U.S. in about five years.
"NASA has put in our documents that we believe a 2017 date for operational missions to the ISS is a reasonable date," said McAlister.
SpaceX says its crewed test flight could come as early as 2015, if everything flows smoothly.
NASA's McAlister also praised the broader commercial development program, saying 2011 was the first time in more than two decades that there were no commercial launches from the United States. He said there will be two or three commercial cargo missions this year, solely because of NASA's public-private partnerships.
"So if it weren't for NASA and our commercial spaceflight initiatives, we would have had another year - a second straight year - of zero commercial launches in an industry where we used to lead and have the majority," said McAlister. "So not only is it great for NASA and great for the International Space Station, but we're seeing these successes bleed over to national capabilities as well, which is something we're really pleased about."
NASA is investing in private companies to handle low-Earth orbit transportation so that the space agency can focus on developing the next generation of space vehicles.