NASA Awards $269 Million for Private Projects

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced Monday that it was distributing $269 million to four companies to develop spacecraft to take its astronauts to orbit in the future.

Enlarge This Image The awards, part of what NASA calls its commercial crew development program, are a bet, pushed by the Obama administration, that commercial companies will be able to get people to and from orbit more quickly and less expensively.

Philip McAlister, acting director of the program, said NASA received 22 proposals and sought additional information on 8 of them before deciding on the winners.

The Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif., which already has a contract to carry cargo to the International Space Station, will receive $75 million toward making its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule suitable for passengers. SpaceX had two successful launchings of its Falcon 9 last year, the second with an empty Dragon capsule that successfully orbited the planet before parachuting back to Earth.

The Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, Colo., will receive $80 million for its small space plane design, and Boeing will receive $92.3 million for a capsule design. Blue Origin, a quiet, enigmatic company started by Jeff Bezos, the founder of, will receive $22 million to work on its capsule design.

For each of the companies, the money will finance one year of work beginning in May, and the companies will be paid as they meet milestones outlined in their proposals.

Another winner — even though NASA did not give it any money — may be the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Except for SpaceX, the other companies need a rocket to fly their spacecraft, and the alliance’s Atlas V rocket is a likely choice.

NASA also passed over a proposal from Alliant Techsystems Inc. to develop a commercial version of the Ares I rocket, which Alliant said would cost much less than an Atlas V.

This second round of commercial crew development awards is NASA’s biggest step so far in breaking away from its past practice of developing and operating its own spacecraft like the space shuttles and before that the behemoth Saturn V rocket.

After the shuttles are retired this year, the United States will have to rely on the Russians, at a cost of more than $50 million a seat, for taking NASA astronauts to orbit.

Mr. McAlister said NASA was aiming for commercial providers to begin flying astronauts to the International Space Station in the “middle part of the decade,” although that depended on future financing from NASA and the companies meeting their technical goals.

“We are hopefully going to make a lot of progress over this next year so we can get there as soon as we can,” Mr. McAlister said.

In the next phase, NASA is to hold a competition to provide crew transportation services, which will be open to all companies, not just the ones that received money in the current round. NASA is still working on details of how the competition would be set up.

“The strategy is still in development,” Mr. McAlister said.

NASA had been developing its own follow-on rocket to the shuttles, the Ares I, as part of an ambitious program to send astronauts back to the Moon. But the Obama administration decided that effort cost too much and moved to cancel it and the Ares I last year. Instead, it wanted to spend $6 billion over five years to finance commercial crew efforts.

Last year, NASA awarded $50 million in its first round of financing for commercial crew development. In his request for the next fiscal year’s budget, President Obama asked for $850 million.

But many members of Congress remain skeptical of the commercial crew approach. While a blueprint for NASA’s priorities over the next three years passed last year includes money for commercial crew, it also includes much more money for NASA to develop a larger capsule and a big rocket for missions beyond low-Earth orbit. Congress also wanted the NASA rocket and capsule as a backup in case the commercial efforts failed.

“While I know that commercial companies could eventually become successful,” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, said during a hearing last week, “I do not feel that the information available justifies such a large investment of federal dollars this year for commercial vehicles.”

With tight budgets, it is not clear how NASA can accomplish everything it has been asked to do.

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