Boeing-SpaceX Team Splits $6.8 Billion Space Taxi Award

Boeing Co. and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will split as much as $6.8 billion in federal funding to help the U.S. resume manned missions and end its dependence on Russian rockets.

The contract to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station will pay a maximum of $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to closely held SpaceX, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said today. A third contender, Sierra Nevada Corp., was shut out.

The award caps a competition for the right to build the first U.S. manned craft since NASA retired the shuttle fleet in 2011. In 2017, Boeing and SpaceX craft would replace the space agency’s sole use of Russia’s Soyuz rockets to get people to the station, an arrangement that costs about $70 million a seat and is entangled in tensions over the crisis in Ukraine.

“It’s entirely possible that we wake up one day and the Russians say, ‘We’re not taking your astronauts up anymore,’” said Marco Caceres, director of space studies at Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group. “NASA’s anticipating this possibility. That’s why they want to move as quickly as possible with this program.”

NASA is charting a new direction 45 years after sending humans to the moon, looking to private industry for human missions near Earth with reusable craft while focusing on far-off trips such as Mars. The space agency is preparing the first rockets to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit in four decades.

‘I’m Giddy’

“I’m giddy today,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said at a news conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. “I couldn’t be happier.”

Boeing and SpaceX may each conduct as many as six missions as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, NASA said. Payments will depend on the contractors achieving five milestones to be set by the agency before the spacecraft are certified as safe for human flight.

The award advances Musk’s ambitions for Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station, to become a force in the global aerospace industry. Musk, 43, who also leads electric-car maker Tesla Motors Inc., has set an ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars.

Musk’s View

“Deeply honored and appreciative of the trust that @NASA has placed in @SpaceX for the future of human spaceflight,” Musk said in a Twitter message.

SpaceX’s Dragon V2 capsule, which seats seven, was designed with an eye to interplanetary travel, able to land vertically anywhere on Earth “with the precision of a helicopter,” according to the company’s website, instead of parachuting into the ocean like early U.S. spacecraft in the 1960s and ’70s.

Boeing’s seven-passenger CST-100 has roots in the Apollo lunar-missions era, and its return to Earth would be cushioned by air bags and parachutes, according to the company’s website. Chicago-based Boeing was the only competitor to complete all of NASA’s design milestones on time.

“Boeing has been part of every American human spaceflight program, and we’re honored that NASA has chosen us to continue that legacy,” said John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of space exploration.

‘Adding Capacity’

NASA will continue to work with Sierra Nevada and another spaceflight company, Blue Origin LLC, which is backed by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, as they refine spacecraft designs, according to Kathy Lueders, program manager with the commercial crew program.

“The contract has an on-ramp clause that allows us to look at potentially adding capacity at some future time,” Lueders told reporters on a conference call. One potential project that would require a piloted vehicle like Sierra Nevada’s winged orbiter: overhauling the space station to extend its life span next decade.

Sierra Nevada, an aerospace company based in Sparks, Nevada, has forged agreements with 21 countries to pursue space flight aboard its Dream Chaser winged orbiter, including an agreement to potentially launch missions from Japan. The company said in a statement that it will “elaborate further” on its options for continuing the commercial crew program after it’s debriefed by NASA.

Apollo Partner

Boeing was a crucial partner in NASA’s Apollo and shuttle programs, and the United Launch Alliance, its joint venture with Lockheed Martin Corp., has an exclusive contract to carry U.S. military payloads. Musk challenged that role in a lawsuit.

While SpaceX’s Dragon V2 capsule can be flown only on the company’s Falcon 9 booster, Boeing’s CST-100 could be fitted atop four different rockets, including its competitor’s launch vehicle.

For now, Russian and American astronauts continue to train together for Soyuz missions amid strained ties between the two countries. Irked by sanctions imposed in the Ukraine standoff, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested via Twitter in April that the U.S. consider sending crews to space “with a trampoline.”

U.S. astronauts are slated to blast off for the space station in Russian launch vehicles on Sept. 25 and Nov. 23, according to a schedule posted on NASA’s website.

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