SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Get NASA Money for Next Generation Spacecraft

By Max Eddy on August 3, 2012 12:16 PM EDT

Dream Chaser
NASA is funding the development of commercial spacecraft like Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser spaceplane, a test version of which is pictured here. (Photo: Wikimedia / Jason Hayes)

This morning, NASA announced the three companies which would receive federal funds to continue development of next generation spacecraft. The recipients are all rising stars of the fledgling domestic commercial space industry working to build the craft to take American astronauts back to space.

"Today, we are announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a press release. "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."

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The money is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) and is the third round of funding NASA has provided to the commercial space industry since 2010. This latest cash infusion saw Boeing take the lion's share with $460 million, SpaceX a close second with $440 million, and Sierra Nevada getting half as much at $212.5 million.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttles, NASA pays a hefty fee to the Russian space agency to fly astronauts onboard their Soyuz craft. By investing in these domestic companies, NASA not only hopes to foster a new job-creating industry at home, but refocus its efforts on deep-space operations and science. Funding spacecraft development also gives NASA a choice of craft to use for missions, and provides non-government entities access to space as well.

The companies received their funds after meeting pre-determined milestones in spacecraft development. Boeing, which worked on the original Apollo program, is developing the CST-1000. A capsule craft designed to launch from a variety of rocket platforms, the CST-1000 is larger than the Apollo capsule but similar in appearance. In April of this year, a mock-up of the craft underwent a successful parachute and drop test.

Sierra Nevada is probably the least well known of the three companies receiving funds, but their Dream Chaser spacecraft is perhaps the most unique. Based of NASA's HL-20 design, the Dream Chaser is a spaceplane designed to be launched atop a rocket and glide back to Earth. Though much smaller than the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser could potentially land at any commercial airport within hours of departing the International Space Station. A flight test vehicle was towed through the air by helicopter as part of a "captive carry test" in May of this year.

Likely the most well-known of the CCiCap recipients, SpaceX was founded by web-made billionaire Elon Musk in 2002. Since then, the company has developed its own Falcon rockets, and berthed its Dragon spacecraft with the ISS this past May. The NASA funds will go toward development of a manned Dragon variant, which Musk hopes to someday use in a future Mars mission.

Though NASA has led American spaceflight since its inception, commercial organizations may be taking over as far as near-Earth operations are concerned. Though today's announcement only saw money change hands, it's an exciting step toward a future where space travel is easier, cheaper, and far more accessible.

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