NASA announced today that it will award three companies with $1.1 billion in grants to help get Americans back into space. Boeing will receive $460 million, and Sierra Nevada Corp. won $213 million. But the really exciting news here is that SpaceX, a private company funded by billionaire technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, will receive $440 million to reinvent a spacecraft capable of carrying humans to and from the great expanse.
“This is a decisive milestone in human spaceflight and sets an exciting course for the next phase of American space exploration,” said Musk, SpaceX’s CEO and Chief Designer, in a statement. “SpaceX, along with our partners at NASA, will continue to push the boundaries of space technology to develop the safest, most advanced crew vehicle ever flown.”
For anyone who cares about the future of American space travel, this is all big news. Last year, NASA discontinued its Shuttle program, and has since paid Russia about $63 milion per person for a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) on the country’s Soyuz spacecraft. Many saw this as a blow to NASA and to American’s ability to look toward the future. But according to NASA, the expansion of its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiC) initiative is precisely the right step forward.
“For 50 years American industry has helped NASA push boundaries, enabling us to live, work and learn in the unique environment of microgravity and low Earth orbit,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement. “The benefits to humanity from these endeavors are incalculable. We’re counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business.”
In late May, SpaceX successfully docked its Dragon capsule, an unmanned spacecraft, with the ISS, making it the first privately-funded company to do so. The Dragon capsule transported about 1,300 pounds of supplies to astronauts aboard the ISS, including food and clothing. SpaceX has also developed the Falcon1 and Falcon9 rocket-powered launch vehicles.
Before either Boeing or SpaceX start building spaceships, the companies must first test and fine tune their designs for NASA assessment. This testing period will take place between now and May 31, 2014. According to NASA, “This would then set the stage for a future activity that will launched crewed orbital demonstration missions to low Earth orbit by the middle of the decade.”
In addition to founding SpaceX in 2002, Musk is also a co-founder of both PayPal and electric car company Telsa Motors, which rolled out its long-awaited Model S sedan in June.
Watch a video of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule returning from the ISS below:
Image: Flacon9, via SpaceX