The Next US Space Shuttle
In all likelihood, the next manned spacecraft that launches from U.S. soil will be one a spaceship built by one of four companies. Yes, companies. The federal government is getting out of the space business by contracting services from private companies with advanced designs and concepts for manned space vehicles. NASA showed its commitment to commercializing space transportation by giving more funding to each of four commercial spacecraft companies.
NASA extended Sierra Nevada Corporation an $80 million contract to develop its Dream Chaser orbital space transportation system. The company has been working on the Dream Chaser for six years. Through its collection of space and electronics companies the Sierra Nevada Corporation developed the X-37, an experimental ship that is currently flying a secret mission in space. The new contract will allow Sierra Nevada Corporation, located in Sparks, Nevada, to further develop the spacecraft which can then be used by other commercial spaceflight companies as well as official U.S. space missions.
NASA gave Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin a $22 million development grant for its New Shephard program. Based on a 20-year-old technology that failed upon takeoff, the Seattle area company has already improved the design and successfully tested its gumdrop-shaped vertical takeoff and landing vehicle in the desert southwest.
NASA extended its space contract with St. Louis-based Boeing, Defense Space & Security. In 2010 NASA gave the company $18 million to continue developing its Orion manned space program. Boeing now has another $90 million to continue that work. NASA scrapped the Orion program several years ago. Big aerospace defense contractors fought over the work and Boeing ultimately beat out rival Lockheed Martin and its partner Northup Grumman for the bid.
NASA awarded $75 million to Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, the commercial space company owned by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors. The tech billionaire and would-be rocket scientist has the only company that has successfully launched a rocket. Now, the new NASA dollars will be used to improve the Dragon rocket and make it safe for transporting astronauts.
“This award will accelerate our efforts to develop the next-generation rockets and spacecraft for human transportation. With NASA’s support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014.” — Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO
NASA began developing its commercial crew development initiative in 2009 when it decided it would allow private companies to build and operate future U.S. missions to space once it retired the space shuttle program. After President Obama canceled the Constellation program in 2010 NASA began to seriously consider working with private companies that began dotting the commercial spaceflight map several years ago.