Image: CST-100
Boeing
An artist's conception shows Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule approaching the International Space Station.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/15/2011 6:14:12 PM ET 2011-05-15T22:14:12
Commentary

NASA is retiring its space shuttle fleet, and many are wondering what’s next. Well, tighten your seat belt: The second great space race is about to begin, and it could shave two or three years off astronauts' down time without something American to fly.

Fifty years ago, President John Kennedy challenged the old Soviet Union to race America to the moon. Today, President Barack Obama and NASA are taking a page from Kennedy’s playbook.

As the sun sets on American spaceships for what some experts argue will be at least five to seven years, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a veteran astronaut himself, has come up with a twofer — a cost-cutting plan that will have private rockets and spacecraft builders racing to the finish line with new hardware.

Last month, NASA awarded more than $269 million in contracts to build commercial spaceships: two capsules, a space plane and a gumdrop spaceship to taxi astronauts to and from the International Space Station or other destinations in low Earth orbit.

Here’s the contract lineup:

  • Blue Origin, a secretive company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, was awarded $22 million.  Blue Origin will work on its gumdrop capsule and an escape system.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. received a contract for $80 million. This little-known company plans to build a reusable Dream Chaser space plane that looks and feels like a mini-space shuttle.  The craft is designed to ride a rocket into orbit and land on a runway.
  • A little more than $92 million went to the Boeing Co., the foursome’s most experienced aerospace veteran, for development of its Apollo-style CST-100 capsule. Boeing hopes its CST-100 will also visit private space stations like the one to be launched by Bigelow Aerospace.
  • SpaceX received $75 million. The company has two successful Cape Canaveral launches under its belt.

Six months ago, something happened that shook the space establishment to its roots.   SpaceX’s privately built rocket, named Falcon 9, climbed into orbit and turned loose a privately built spacecraft named Dragon. The Dragon capsule scooted around Earth twice, maneuvering its flight path before parachuting into the eastern Pacific, 500 miles from its flight control center in Hawthorne, Calif.

It was an unqualified success for an American company participating in NASA’s commercial space adventure. SpaceX is putting $600 million into the project, while NASA is providing $278 million in seed money.

SpaceX says it could be delivering supplies to the International Space Station by the end of this year or early next year. And the company adds that astronauts could fly into orbit in upgraded Dragon capsules as early as 2014.

The success of the new kids on the block has the old boys nervous, and this works to the advantage of NASA and American taxpayers.

Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft is obviously the Cadillac of the entries in this great second space race. "Assuming adequate NASA funding, we can have our commercial crew transportation system operational in 2015," John Elbon, the company’s vice president and program manager of commercial crew programs, told me.

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Elbon added, “Boeing is offering a complete integrated turnkey operation that includes a launch vehicle.”

Wow!  That means American astronauts would be riding their own ships to and from the International Space Station in three or four years, not seven or more.  Until then, they will be hitching a ride on Russian spacecraft, a fact that sticks in the craw of many.

Choosing the rocket
The key here would be the launch vehicle for Boeing’s CST-100.

Standing by is arguably the world’s most reliable rocket: a U.S.-European vehicle that is an upgraded version of the space shuttle’s solid booster rocket, which has flown perfectly 216 times, plus France’s Ariane 5 rocket as a second stage, which has flown 41 times without a problem.

The rocket, called Liberty, is being offered by ATK Space Launch Systems. It’s capable of carrying all crew vehicles in development today.

"Both stages of Liberty were designed for human rating from the beginning," said ATK Vice President Charlie Precourt, a veteran astronaut and former director of NASA’s flight crew operations.  The other rockets haven’t yet gone through the time-consuming process to be certified as safe for flying humans.

What’s more, an earlier variant of Liberty has already flown in the form of the Ares 1-X rocket, and it already has its launch pad and facilities to accommodate astronauts.  Although the Ares project was canceled last year, that experience gives Liberty an extra boost in this second space race.  “We can perform a test flight in late 2013 and deliver crew by 2015,” Precourt said.

Boeing is currently talking with the Liberty folks about using its rocket to boost the CST-100’s first flights, with hopes of making a decision next month. 

If ATK’s Liberty and Boeing’s CST-100 team up, the U.S.-European rocket should open the door for customers in international governments desiring their own space program.

“Even though Boeing will have to settle on a launch vehicle to meet its first flight in 2015,” Boeing’s Elbon said, “this does not preclude recertifying other launch vehicles in the future.” 

In fact, Boeing is talking to other rocket makers. The company is a partner in United Launch Alliance, operators of the highly successful Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, which are not yet rated to fly humans.

Eating rocket dust?
Boeing reportedly believes it has the time to man-rate and build the astronaut support facilities for the Atlas 5, and may ask Liberty merely to stand by for possible later use. 

Critics say the huge aerospace company will be taking more chances that something could go wrong with the Atlas 5 instead of using Liberty. "Boeing could find itself eating SpaceX’s dust," one observer said.

Once the new players from SpaceX demonstrate they can safely deliver cargo to the International Space Station, they will be on solid footing to outfit their Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. The question is, can they beat Boeing’s CST-100?

You can bet it’ll be a race to the finish line by the old and the new. And when there are two or more players in a market, the competition cuts costs for the consumers — in this case, NASA and the American taxpayers. All of us end up being the ultimate winners.

Who needs a one horse race?

More from Cape Canaveral:

NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every American spaceflight. He has written eight books about space science and exploration — including a newly updated edition of “Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings,” written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. "Moon Shot" is available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Storeand OverDrive

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Photos: End of the Space Shuttle

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    Above: Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Video: NASA awards funds  to develop spaceships

Explainer: Ten high-profile players in the commercial space race

  • Image: Obama at KSC
    Jewel Samad  /  AFP — Getty Images file
    US President Barack Obama walks past a main engine of a shuttle as he arrives to speak on the new course the administration is charting for NASA and the future of US leadership in human space flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 15, 2010.

    When NASA's space shuttle fleet retires in 2011, the space agency will have to rely on Russian spacecraft and the private sector to taxi cargo and humans to and from the International Space Station, even as it turns its focus to the technologies required to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

    President Barack Obama views the policy as a boost to the nascent commercial spaceflight industry, where competition is already heating up to supply the taxi services. Some companies are also talking about offering out-of-this-world rides for researchers as well as tourists with deep pockets and a serious case of star lust. Click ahead to check out 10 of the top players in the race to commercialize space.

  • Space Exploration Technologies

    Image: Falcon 9 launch
    CollectSpace.com
    SpaceX's Falcon 9 rises from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, sending a test capsule into orbit.

    PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has already signed up NASA as a marquee account for his high-flying venture, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. The government has a $1.6 billion contract with the Hawthorne, Calif., company to provide unmanned cargo deliveries to the International Space Station starting in 2011 with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

    This image shows the successful test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on June 4. The rocket will eventually carry the Dragon to orbit. If all goes according to plan, astronauts may get a lift as well, starting in 2013. SpaceX has also secured contracts to launch next-generation satellites for the telecommunications company Iridium.

  • Orbital Sciences

    Image: Orbital Sciences
    Orbital Sciences

    Another NASA contract — this one worth a reported $1.9 billion — is in the bag at Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, which is planning to supply the International Space Station with its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, shown here in an artist’s rendering. A newly-developed Taurus 2 rocket will ferry the cargo ship to space. If the opportunity presents itself, the company may advance plans to ferry humans to orbit as well.

  • Boeing

    Image: Space capsule
    Boeing
    Boeing is hard at work on the research and development of a new space capsule aimed at flying people to the International Space Station.

    Boeing, the aerospace giant, has unveiled plans to flesh out designs and build a new capsule-based spaceship called the CST-100, which will take cargo and passengers to the International Space Station. The development push comes thanks to an $18 million NASA grant.

    The Apollo-like capsule will carry a crew of seven and be designed to launch on a variety of rockets, including the Atlas and Delta rockets operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture known as the United Launch Alliance, as well as SpaceX's Falcon. Extra seats may be made available for paying passengers through a marketing arrangement with Space Adventures.

  • Masten Space Systems

    X Prize Foundation via AP
    This photo shows the Masten Space System rocket XA-0.1B, also called "Xombie" launching from the pad, traveling 50 meters above the ground at the Mojave Air & Space Port. Mojave, CA on Oct. 7, 2009.

    While big NASA contracts have already gone to big names in the commercial space industry, lesser-known Masten Space Systems is in the race to pick up taxi fares to the International Space Station as well.

    The company won a $1 million lunar challenge prize with the Xoie spacecraft shown here. It is now working on a next-generation vehicle based on the vertical-takeoff-and-landing design to ferry cargo. NASA funding will go toward four test flights of the spacecraft, called Xaero.

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation

    Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation
    Lewis Geyer  /  Times-call

    The reusable Dream Chaser space plane, under development by Sierra Nevada Corp. subsidiary SpaceDev , has a look and feel reminiscent of a mini-space shuttle. Like NASA spacecraft, a rocket lifts the space plane up — and at the end of its mission, the plane lands on a runway.

    In fact, the transportation system is based on NASA technology, and the company recently received $20 million from the space agency to continue the plane's development. A full-scale mockup of the plane is shown in this file photo from its unveiling in 2006.

  • Bigelow Aerospace

    Image: Bigelow Aerospace
    Bigelow Aerospace

    Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow padded his bank account by building a hotel chain, Budget Suites of America. His latest pioneering venture, Bigelow Aerospace, is aimed at building affordable habitats in space.

    Two prototype inflatable capsules have already been launched, and plans are in the works to put the more expansive Sundancer space station, shown here in an artist's conception, in orbit by 2015.

    In this case, the overnight guests may include national space agencies as well as private-sector researchers and thrill-seeking tourists. Other players in the commercial space sector would taxi guests to and from the puffy digs.

  • Blue Origin

    Image: Blue Origin
    Blue Origin

    Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who amassed a fortune selling the printed word online, has few words to share about Blue Origin, his commercial space venture to fly a vertical launch and landing rocket to suborbital space.

    This much is known: A demonstration vehicle called Goddard, shown here in a file photo, successfully took off and landed in 2006 from the company's private spaceport in west Texas. It's not yet known when the company's commercial vehicle will be ready for a public unveiling.

    A bit more info: NASA recently awarded the company $3.7 million of a $50 million pie that it says is for the "development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems." Blue Origin is concentrating on the development of a launch escape system that could push a NASA capsule to safety in case of emergency.

  • Virgin Galactic

    Virgin Galactic
    The Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceliner SpaceShipTwo makes its first crewed flight on July 15, 2010 over the Mojave Desert in California.

    Space enthusiasts with $200,000 to burn can book a ticket to ride to outer space with Virgin Galactic on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The plane, meant for tourism as well as research, will haul six passengers and two pilots on suborbital flights that pop into outer space for a few minutes before returning to Earth.

    The aircraft was designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and colleagues at Scaled Composites. Test flights of the spacecraft, which launches from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, are under way. Ticketholders will get their opportunity to ride once all systems are a go.

  • Armadillo Aerospace

    Image: Armadillo future spacecraft
    Armadillo Aerospace

    Would-be space tourists who balk at the price tag for a ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo might consider another option in the offing: $102,000 for a seat on Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace's vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.

    The spacecraft, shown in this artist's conception, will rocket passengers into outer space for about five minutes of weightlessness and 360-degree views. Tickets can be booked through Space Adventures, the same company that has arranged rides to the International Space Station for the super-wealthy.

  • XCOR Aerospace

    Image: XCOR Aerospace
    XCOR Aerospace

    Yet another option for the space tourist is a $95,000 trip up to the inky blackness at the edge of space in XCOR's Lynx rocketship. The spacecraft, which has room for just one pilot and one passenger riding shotgun, takes off horizontally from a runway and climbs steeply to 200,000 feet, where views abound of planet Earth and the stars. Advance reservations for the hour-long trip can be booked through space tourism company RocketShipTours. An artist's rendering of the rocketship is seen here.

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