A different kind of space race is coming to an end.
Three years from now, if all goes according to plan, the United States will send a crew of astronauts into orbit without Russia's help.
NASA will soon pick an American company—or companies—to support in the development of commercial spacecraft to send astronauts into orbit, a capability the U.S. lost when the shuttle program was retired in 2011. The reveal is scheduled for the end of this month or early September, according to a NASA spokeswoman.
Right now, the U.S. depends on Russia to transport crew to the international space station. NASA pays Russia $70.7 million per astronaut to travel aboard Soyuz capsules to the orbital laboratory. The cost is $8 million more than a previous agreement between the two nations' space agencies, and future deals are expected to be more expensive. And that's if the U.S. and Russia can even agree on future space negotiations, given their strained relationship as the Ukraine crisis continues.
In 2010, NASA awarded $50 million in grants to five private firms to develop commercial crew programs. Two years later, it spread $1.1. billion in seed money to the three finalists: Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada. The winner could send Americans to the International Space Station by 2017.
Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada are preparing for test launches of their entries within the next year or two. Boeing is developing a seven-seat CST-100 capsule that would launch atop an Atlas V rocket, a spacecraft that has been flying successfully to space since 2002. SpaceX is building a version of its existing Dragon capsule, which has transported cargo to the ISS, that is suitable for human passengers. And Sierra Nevada is constructing a reusable, seven-seat spacecraft called Dream Chaser that would also launch with the help of an Atlas V rocket.
The winner(s) receive a billion-dollar contract with NASA. But this isn't just about money. The Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger explains:
At stake is not just a $4 billion contract, but prestige. The next spacecraft that flies U.S. astronauts will have an American flag, yes, but also a prominent corporate logo. That company will also join the elite club—whose only members include the United States, Russia, and China—that has flown humans in space.
The forthcoming NASA decision will also mark a shift in the history of spaceflight in the U.S. Since the 1960s, human space exploration—and its hundred-billion-dollar price tag—has been the domain of government agencies like NASA, explains Jeff Foust at The Space Review. The idea of a partnership between the government and the price sector is new and, for some, seems anti-NASA. But with the shuttle program gone for good, there's little choice in the matter: NASA needs private firms to return human spaceflight to U.S. soil.