Nasa set for lift-off again as it picks US companies to build manned space capsules

Deals with Boeing and SpaceX will end reliance on Russia to carry astronauts into orbit

Click to follow
The Independent US

More than three years after the last space shuttle touched down, America is planning its return to orbit.

On Tuesday Nasa awarded contracts worth $6.8bn (£4.2bn) to two US companies to produce the next generation of manned space vehicles. As part of its Commercial Crew Development programme, the US space agency announced that Boeing and SpaceX, run by PayPal’s founder Elon Musk, had been chosen to complete development of new ships that will ferry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Both firms are expected to have their capsules ready to enter service in 2017, when Nasa’s deal with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, runs out. Since the space shuttle was retired in July 2011, US astronauts have had to travel back and forth to the ISS in Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of more than $70m per seat. Apart from the premium, the US is increasingly reluctant to partner with Moscow in the light of Russia’s activities in Ukraine.

“From day one, the Obama administration has made it clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space,” Nasa’s administrator, Charlie Bolden, told reporters at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Tuesday. “Today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from US soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017.”

Video: Nasa test their latest spacecraft

In 2010, the Obama administration directed Nasa to find private US companies that would compete to develop a new fleet of American spacecraft. Boeing, SpaceX and the Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) have already benefited from a combined $1.5bn in Nasa funding. Now, Boeing is to receive another $4.2bn, while SpaceX will be awarded $2.6bn, to develop their space vehicles to a level deemed safe for manned test flights.

Boeing’s seven-seat CST-100 superficially resembles the original Apollo capsule, and is designed to be launched into orbit on an Atlas V rocket, returning to Earth by deploying parachutes during its descent. The SpaceX Dragon, another seven-seat capsule, will land using thrusters rather than parachutes. Both capsules are designed for repeated use, though SpaceX claims the Dragon will be cheaper than its rival.

SpaceX has already sent unmanned spacecraft into orbit, and in 2012 it became the first commercial firm to deliver cargo to the ISS. Mr Musk, its CEO and chief designer, has invested much of his own $9.5m fortune in SpaceX and said in a statement that he was “deeply honoured” by Nasa’s choice. The entrepreneur, who also owns the electric car firm Tesla, and who has declared that he wants to colonise Mars, said the contracts represented “a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species.”

SNC was not included in the new round of funding, but is expected to continue developing its own winged Dream Chaser craft; this is much like a miniature version of the space shuttle and lands on a runway. The firm is reportedly developing partnerships with foreign space agencies, and is planning an unmanned demonstration flight.

When Nasa certifies the Boeing and SpaceX designs for manned flight, the CST-100 and Dragon will each make between two and six missions to the ISS to deliver cargo and crew. The capsules are also designed to act as “lifeboats” in the event of an emergency at the space station and can sustain crew members for 210 days.

Mr Bolden noted that the Commercial Crew Development programme was part of the space agency’s broader strategy to outsource orbital space travel to the private sector so as to free up funds for Nasa’s exploration of deep space. The agency is developing a new rocket design known as the Space Launch System, with the intention of sending future missions to asteroids, the Moon and Mars.