American astronauts will once again have their own ride to the International Space Station, and the crafts will be made by the old stalwart of the aerospace industry, Boeing, and by the upstart aerospace company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk.
At an event today at Kennedy Space Center, NASA announced it will work with Boeing (BA) and SpaceX to build separate “space taxis” that will take astronauts to and from low-earth orbit at the International Space Station. Since the American space agency discontinued use of the space shuttle fleet 2011, Americans have had to hitch a ride on a Russian craft to reach the ISS.
“The Obama administration has made it very clear that the greatest nation on earth should not be dependent on any other nation for getting into space,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
The total deal, worth $6.8 billion, was sought after by several other companies including aerospace firm Sierra Nevada. The two space crafts — Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s are expected to be ready in 2017.
Boeing’s contract is for $4.2 billion, and SpaceX’s is for $2.6 billion. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s program manager for the commercial crew program, said the two contracts have the same requirements, and the dollar totals are based on each company’s proposal.
The two company’s will have to go through various safety checks and test flights before operations begin.
SpaceX already has a deal with NASA to haul equipment to and from the space station. In May, Musk announced that its Dragon V2 would be able to carry humans in and out of low earth orbit.
Lueders declined to comment on the details of each company’s plans, but reiterated that NASA hopes to be flying astronauts to the ISS by 2017.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced that the ISS would remain open until at least 2024, an extension of 4 years.
This is the latest announcement showing the US getting heavily back into space exploration. In December, NASA plans to test launch the first Orion crew module to an altitude of 3,600 miles. Eventually, this craft could carry American astronauts further into space than ever, including the much-discussed trip to Mars.
Winning part of the latest NASA contract is a sweet victory for both companies, but particularly for SpaceX, which has complained about unfairness in government aerospace contracting. Earlier this year, it sued US Air Force over its bidding process for a contract to deliver satellites into orbit that was awarded to another company.
(This story has been updated with new information)