With one small step yesterday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration took a giant leap toward realizing a manned mission to Mars.
The agency awarded Boeing Co. and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. as much as $6.8 billion to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, resuming U.S. manned space flight. Since NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011, U.S. astronauts have relied on Russian rockets to reach orbit.
The landmark announcement was the first time the U.S. has handed responsibility to commercial ventures for flying humans into space, furthering efforts to take tourists beyond the Earth's atmosphere. While NASA has a half-century of partnership with Boeing, SpaceX brings a vocal champion of aggressive exploration of other worlds.
"SpaceX is the new kid on the block, but it's proven its capabilities very quickly," said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant. "SpaceX would love to be the first commercial company to land its own private astronauts on the moon and eventually go on to Mars."
Under the agreement, Boeing will receive a maximum of $4.2 billion and SpaceX will get as much as $2.6 billion, while a third contender for the contract, Sierra Nevada Corp., was shut out. The Boeing and SpaceX capsules should begin manned flight by 2017, eventually replacing NASA's sole use of Russia's Soyuz rockets to get people to the station. That arrangement costs about $70 million a seat and is entangled in tensions over the crisis in Ukraine.
NASA is charting a new direction 45 years after sending humans to the moon, looking to private industry for human missions near Earth with reusable craft while focusing on far-off trips such as Mars. The space agency is preparing the first rockets to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit in four decades.
"Mars -- that's where we're going," Charles Bolden, NASA's administrator, told reporters yesterday.
It's a goal shared by Musk, the chief executive officer and chief designer for SpaceX, who is no stranger to setting and pursuing audacious dreams. After shaking up the conventional auto industry with his premium battery-powered cars through Tesla Motors Inc., the South African native and science-fiction buff is fixated on transforming aerospace.
"SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us," Musk said in an e-mail. The head of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX said he welcomes NASA's decision and "the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species."
In 11 years, SpaceX has evolved from making rockets to becoming the first private company to haul cargo to the orbiting space station.
SpaceX's Dragon V2 capsule, which seats seven and sits atop the Falcon 9 rocket, was designed with an eye to interplanetary travel, able to land vertically anywhere on Earth "with the precision of a helicopter," according to the company's website, instead of parachuting into the ocean like early U.S. spacecraft in the 1960s and '70s.
Boeing's seven-passenger CST-100 has roots in the Apollo lunar-missions era, and its return to Earth would be cushioned by air bags and parachutes, according to the planemaker's website. The Chicago-based company was the only competitor to complete all of NASA's design milestones on time.
"Boeing has been part of every American human spaceflight program, and we're honored that NASA has chosen us to continue that legacy," John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of space exploration, said in a statement.
Through its United Launch Alliance joint venture with Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing has an exclusive contract to carry U.S. military payloads to space. Musk challenged that role in a lawsuit.
"Boeing has a long history of being involved in the space industry, so this reiterates their place in that," said Christian Mayes, an Edward Jones & Co. analyst in Des Peres, Missouri, who rates Boeing hold. "They well understand the process, how to get things certified, how to work with NASA."
Boeing and SpaceX may each conduct as many as six missions as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, NASA said. Payments will depend on the contractors achieving five milestones to be set by the agency before the spacecraft are certified as safe for human flight.
"The idea is that private industry should lead the way in some sort of a partnership with the government," Teal Group's Caceres said. "If Boeing and SpaceX prove that they can do this perfectly well for NASA, that would just increase the argument for moving away from the old paradigm, which is NASA owning and operating its own system."
NASA will continue to work with Sierra Nevada and another spaceflight company, Blue Origin LLC, which is backed by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, as they refine spacecraft designs, according to Kathy Lueders, program manager with the commercial crew program.
"The contract has an on-ramp clause that allows us to look at potentially adding capacity at some future time," Lueders told reporters on a conference call. One potential project that would require a piloted vehicle like Sierra Nevada's winged orbiter: overhauling the space station next decade to extend its life span.
Sierra Nevada, an aerospace company based in Sparks, Nevada, has elicited interest in space flight aboard its Dream Chaser winged orbiter from 21 countries that partnered with NASA on the space shuttle program. The company said in a statement that it will "elaborate further" on its options for continuing the commercial crew program after it is debriefed by NASA.