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NASA has awarded Boeing Co. a contract worth as much as $4.2 billion and rival Space Exploration Technologies Corp. a separate pact valued at up to $2.6 billion to develop, test and fly space taxis to carry U.S. astronauts into orbit. Reflecting NASA and White House policy goals, NASA opted for two contractors to spur competition, cut overall technical risk and hopefully keep a lid on prices.
Credit image: NASA
Last Tuesday, the NASA's long-awaited announcement marks a milestone for commercial space ventures, partly because both companies will own and operate the equipment while experiencing significantly less day-to-day federal oversight than previous manned space programs. The final value of the contracts, which likely will run past the end of the decade, depends on each of the contractors meeting specified timetables and obtaining NASA certification of their rockets and capsules for safety and reliability. Assuming the companies win those approvals, the contracts will cover as many as a dozen missions overall to shuttle astronauts and limited amounts of cargo to and from the space station.
NASA chief Charles Bolden said the awards set the stage for "the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human space flight."
If the programs are successful, NASA officials believe some of the hardware eventually could be used to offer rides to space tourists. Other technology could be adapted in separate NASA efforts to develop a deep-space rocket and more-capable capsules intended to take astronauts to Mars in coming decades.
Even if NASA's plans work out, lack of international support may end up creating a new problem: the space station, or at least parts of it, could be closed as early as the middle of the next decade if various countries cut off financial support. That would leave the nascent space-taxi program looking for new destinations. For now, though, Mr. Bolden told reporters the contracts fulfill President Barack Obama's pledge to end NASA's dependence on Russia and return to using U.S.-built boosters and spacecraft to achieve orbit. The last U.S. space shuttle, which fulfilled that role, was mothballed three years ago.
Boeing's larger share of the project, which had been expected, stems partly from the higher operating costs and larger overhead it has built up over decades as a NASA contractor, government and independent space experts said. But, according to these experts, Boeing's award also reflects the higher score it garnered in some of NASA's technical rankings. Boeing's proposed technology met all of the agency's design review requirements, the experts said, while the system proposed by SpaceX, as the Southern California company is known, fell short in some areas.
NASA officials emphasized that the size of the awards underscores SpaceX's reputation as a nimble, low-cost supplier. Founded by former Web entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX has grown rapidly and proven itself as a reliable shipper of cargo to the space station. The manned capsule it plans to use to carry astronauts is an upgraded version of its Dragon cargo capsule, already in use.
In previous commercial development efforts, NASA ended up awarding SpaceX basically the same amount as it did the company's chief rivals. In those instances, the gap amounted to between 3% and 10% less for SpaceX. This time, the difference was close to 25% of the total.
In a statement, Boeing stressed its work for NASA stretching back to the dawn of the space age. "Boeing has been part of every American human-space-flight program, and we're honored that NASA has chosen us to continue that legacy," said John Elbon, general manager of the Chicago-based company's space exploration unit.
Prior to the announcement at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA faced conflicting pressures from the White House and senior House Republicans. From the time the Obama administration shook up NASA's bureaucracy by proposing commercial space taxis, the agency has been keen to maintain competition. But over the years, congressional leaders have crafted legislative language and otherwise urged Mr. Bolden and his top managers to pick just one contractor for this phase of the effort, to avoid redundant spending.
In the end, NASA opted for competition but devised a series of reviews and procedures enabling it to withhold funds from either contractor if agency officials determined progress was flagging.
Sierra Nevada Corp., the third company vying for an award, didn't get a contract despite some initial support inside and outside NASA for its design. The company proposed a winged vehicle, resembling a conventional aircraft, that would launch vertically atop an Atlas V rocket but return by landing on a runway. Such a spacecraft would have "long-term reusability" to significantly reduce operating costs, according to George Torres, a former industry official and author of books on space. "That's why the arguments were so vociferous."
Once NASA decided to award Boeing the bulk of the funds, according to Mr. Torres, support for Sierra Nevada dropped dramatically because both companies envisioned using the Atlas V rocket. Under all circumstances, according to Mr. Torres and others, NASA wanted two different rockets in the mix.
But throughout the news conference, and in the comments of some lawmakers reacting to the awards, much of the emphasis was on NASA's plans to go beyond low-Earth orbit and ultimately to other planets. Robert Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, described the new industry-government partnerships being forged as the "first step from planet earth to going on to Mars someday."
In the same vein, Mr. Bolden devoted a large portion of his remarks to discussing future launches and tests of NASA's Orion capsule, designed to explore the solar system beyond the space station. But unlike the commercially driven contracts for space taxis, Orion and the boosters that are intended to blast it into space are being developed by NASA under more-traditional contracts mandating closer agency oversight. Boeing has a major role in that effort.NASA has awarded Boeing Co. a contract worth as much as $4.2 billion and rival Space Exploration Technologies Corp. a separate pact valued at up to $2.6 billion to develop, test and fly space taxis to carry U.S. astronauts into orbit.
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