CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (CBSSF/AP) -- NASA is a giant step closer to launching Americans again from U.S. soil, and one of the likely contenders is SpaceX, the private rocket company formed by PayPal and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk.
On Tuesday, the space agency planned to announce which one or two private companies wins the right to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, and get a foot in the door to possibly handle future launches to destinations like the moon and Mars. The deal will end NASA's expensive reliance on Russian crew transport.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will make the long-awaited announcement at Kennedy Space Center, next door to where the launches should occur in a few years.
The major contenders include SpaceX of California, already delivering space station cargo; Sierra Nevada Corp., which is developing a mini-shuttle in Colorado; and Boeing, the veteran of the group that would assemble its crew capsules at Kennedy.
SpaceX has also been working with NASA on a program to send extremely heavy payloads into space, including the DragonX capsule which could theoretically be adapted for a Mars mission.
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U.S. astronauts have been riding Russian rockets ever since NASA's space shuttles retired in 2011. The latest price tag is $71 million per seat; NASA has at least four of its own astronauts flying up on a Russian Soyuz, to the space station, every year.
NASA has set a goal of 2017 for the first crewed launch under the program.
The commercial crew program follows the successful cargo delivery effort underway for the past two years, also under NASA contract. The objective, for years, has been for NASA to hand space station flights to private companies and focus on getting astronauts into true outer space, with destinations such as asteroids and Mars. NASA is prepping its first-ever Orion space exploration capsule for a test flight in December.
Billionaire Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. -- SpaceX for short -- became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and retrieve it in 2010. The SpaceX Dragon capsule made its first space station trip, with astronaut supplies, in 2012.
The Dragon cargo carrier has been enhanced to carry as many as seven astronauts. It's known as Dragon v2 -- version two.
While SpaceX is proud of its cargo deliveries, "the company was not founded to bring T-shirts and food and water up to space, it was founded to bring people into space," program manager Garrett Reisman, a former space station astronaut, told an industry conference late last month.
Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia, which also makes unmanned space station shipments, did not vie for crew-carrying privileges.
Boeing's entry was also a capsule, called CST-100. 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. Its name: Dream Chaser.
Both the CST-100 and Dream Chaser called for flying atop an Atlas V rocket. 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 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. The company has given sparse details about its progress and intent.
Sierra Nevada: http://tinyurl.com/mqv9md9
Blue Origin: http://www.blueorigin.com/
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