NASA and SpaceX evaluation team inside the Dragon Crew Engineering Model. From top left: NASA Crew Survival Engineering Team Lead Dustin Gohmert, NASA Astronaut Tony Antonelli, NASA Astronaut Eric Boe, SpaceX Mission Operations Engineer Laura Crabtree, SpaceX Thermal Engineer Brenda Hernandez, NASA Astronaut Rex Walheim, and NASA Astronaut Tim Kopra.(SpaceX photo)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (August 3, 2012)—Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, which operates a rocket test facility in McGregor west of Waco, has won a $440 million contract from NASA to launch astronauts into space, the agency announced Friday.
SpaceX and two other companies, one Texas-based, won contracts to design and develop “the next generation of U.S. human spaceflight capabilities” with the goal of launching astronauts from U.S. soil within the next five years.
Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, Colo., which won a $212.5 million contract, and The Boeing Company of Houston, which won a $460 million contract, are the other two companies involved in the effort to taxi astronauts to the International Space Station, which NASA now pays Russia to do.
"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,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The announcement Friday marks another step in the development of commercial manned space travel, which would be available to the government and to other customers, as well.
"This is a decisive milestone in human spaceflight and sets an exciting course for the next phase of American space exploration," said SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.
"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."
SpaceX says it plans its first manned flight by 2015, relying on the already proven success of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, which were designed not only to carry cargo into space, but also a crew.
In May SpaceX made space program history by successfully completing the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station using the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.
The launch was the culmination of an effort that started six years ago and came to fruition in December 2008 when NASA awarded a $1.6 billion contract to SpaceX for a rocket and spacecraft to transport cargo to the International Space Station after the U.S. shuttle program ended.
Under the contract, the company’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft will be used to transport a guaranteed minimum of 44,000 pounds of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the space station and NASA could order additional missions for a total contract value of as much as $3.1 billion, SpaceX said.
SpaceX placed its Dragon capsule in orbit for the first time in December 2010.
The Dragon circled Earth at speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour before re-entering the atmosphere three hours later and deploying a parachute to land in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles off the Mexican coast, marking the first time a commercial business recovered a spacecraft after reentry.
The company plans to modify the Dragon for human flight by adding seats for seven astronauts, an advanced launch escape system it says will be the most technically advanced ever developed, and a landing system that allows for “gentle ground touchdowns” on legs.
Musk said in June South Texas is the leading candidate for a launch site for the company.
Musk said he wants to build a spaceport near Brownsville and said he plans to talk to Texas Gov. Rick Perry about incentives and other issues.
SpaceX also is considering sites in Florida and Puerto Rico.