WASHINGTON, Sept. 17 — U.S. space agency NASA announced Tuesday that it has awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to build commercial spaceships that will send U.S. astronauts to space from American soil.
"Today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation's sole reliance on Russia by 2017," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told a televised press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Bolden said NASA plans to use Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and return them to Earth.
The total contract value is USD 4.2 billion for Boeing and USD 2.6 billion for SpaceX, he said, adding that the spacecraft will launch from the Cape Canaveral complex in Florida.
The third major contender, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp., which was developing a mini-shuttle called Dream Chaser, was knocked out, but NASA didn't explain why.
"It was not an easy choice, but it is the best choice for NASA and the nation," Bolden said.
"The partnership with Boeing and SpaceX promises to give more people … the opportunity to experience the wonder and exhilaration of spaceflight."
The contracts include at least one crewed flight test to the ISS per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard, NASA said.
Once each company's test program has been completed successfully, each contractor will conduct at least two, and as many as six, crewed missions to the ISS, it said.
These spacecraft also will ferry astronauts to the ISS for other countries, said the space agency.
Currently, the only vehicle available to ferry humans to the space station is Russia's Soyuz spacecraft and NASA pays Russia USD 70 million a seat to take U.S. astronauts to the orbiting laboratory.
NASA created the commercial crew program in the hope of ending the U.S. dependence on Russia. It has already invested over USD 1.4 billion to help private companies to develop the next generation spacecraft capable of transporting humans to and from low-Earth orbit. (PNA/Xinhua)