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Private Spaceship Builders Split $30 Million in NASA Funds

spacex-dragon-capsule-undocking

The private Dragon capsule built by SpaceX is seen at the end of the International Space Station's robotic arm during its undocking on Oct. 28, 2012, in this camera view. The Dragon capsule made the first commercial cargo delivery to the space (NASA TV)

NASA has awarded $30 million to help three private companies ensure that their astronaut taxis are safe and reliable, agency officials announced today (Dec. 10).

Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. will each receive about $10 million to begin certifying that their respective private spaceflight systems meet NASA requirements for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station. A second and final contract in this process — which is known as the certification products contracts, or CPC — will be awarded in the future, agency officials said.

"I congratulate the three companies for their selection," Ed Mango, Commercial Crew Program manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said in a statement. "This is the program's first major, fixed-price contract. The effort will bring space system designs within NASA's safety and performance expectations for future flights to the International Space Station."

Colorado-based Sierra Nevada got an even $10 million to continue work on its Dream Chaser space plane. Texas-based Boeing got $9.99 million for its CST-100 capsule, while SpaceX (headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif.) received $9.59 million to keep upgrading its unmanned Dragon capsule to carry crew. [Now Boarding: The Top 10 Private Spaceships]

NASA hopes at least one of these vehicles will be ready to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit by 2017. The United States has lacked a homegrown manned capability since NASA's space shuttle fleet retired in July 2011; it currently relies on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do the job.

"These contracts represent important progress in restoring human spaceflight capabilities to the United States," Phil McAlister, director of NASA's Commercial Spaceflight Development Division, said in a statement. "NASA and its industry partners are committed to the goal of safely and cost-effectively launching astronauts from home within the next five years."

The CPC Phase 1 contracts run from Jan. 22, 2013 through May 30, 2014, NASA officials said. During this period, the three companies will work with the Commercial Crew Program to draw up certification plans. These plans will implement NASA's safety and performance requirements across all aspects of the transportation system, from the spacecraft to the launch vehicle and ground operations.

CPC Phase 2, which is expected to begin in mid-2014, will include the final development and verifications necessary to allow manned test flights to the space station. This second contract phase will involve a full and open competition, officials said.

The newly announced $30 million is just the latest in a series of commercial crew awards granted by NASA over the last few years. In 2010, the agency granted a total of $50 million to five companies, including Boeing and Sierra Nevada. Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX split $315 million in 2011 and $1.1 billion in another round of awards announced this past August.