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Companies building space taxis get funding boost from NASA

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Aug 4, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—NASA announced August 3 a further round of funding for three US companies developing astronaut transportation. SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation have all been awarded new Space Act Agreements under NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program that provides each company with additional cash for the development of their spacecraft.

NASA, which has not been able to transport crew to the International Space Station since the retirement of the Space Shuttle last year, is keen to regain human spaceflight capability as soon as possible. NASA boss Charles Bolden declared: "We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country."

All three companies awarded new agreements have already been developing their space taxis with the help of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program.

Space Exploration Technologies - SpaceX - is building a crewed version of its Dragon capsule and under its new CCiCap agreement will benefit from an injection of $440 million from NASA. Dragon was always conceived as a vehicle that could take crew as well as cargo, and is the only spacecraft in the commercial crew program that has been put into orbit. Furthermore, it also berthed successfully with the space station on its second orbital flight in May 2012, proving its rendezvous technology. The company plans to have its first manned flight by 2015. Dragon will be able to carry seven astronauts and, if SpaceX succeeds with its propulsive landing system, will be able to land on its legs rather than in the ocean. Elon Musk, the founder, CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX, said: “This is a decisive milestone in human spaceflight and sets an exciting course for the next phase of American space exploration. 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.”

The largest cash award, $460m, goes to Boeing. Its Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 recently completed another parachute drop landing test. Capable of carrying up to seven astronauts, the CST-100 would be launched atop an Atlas V rocket operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a company in which Boeing has a 50% stake.

Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is developing the Dream Chaser spaceship, has been awarded $212.5 million for a 21 month contract starting this August. The Dream Chaser recently had its first captive carry flight - where the craft is carried by another aircraft rather than using its own power - to test its aerodynamics. The Dream Chaser would be blasted into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket provided by ULA.

The award to Dream Chaser shows NASA are supporting different design concepts, Dream Chaser being designed to land on a runway like the Space Shuttle.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser will land on a conventional runway (artist's illustration). Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation.

NASA's commercial spaceflight strategy is to outsource cargo and crew transport to the International Space Station and other Low Earth Orbit missions to commercial business. NASA's William Gerstenmaier, commenting on the CCiCap awards, said: "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."

Whilst NASA supports the emergence of commercial cargo and crew transport for Low Earth Orbit missions, it is developing its own spaceship for deep space missions such as to the Moon, Mars and asteroids. The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is being designed for such missions. A new launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS) is being built to carry Orion to orbit.