Image: CST-100
NASA
Visitors to Orbiter Processing Facility 3 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center take a look at a full-scale cutaway mockup of Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule during a ceremony to announce the signing of a public-private agreement. Under the agreement, Boeing will build the capsule in the facility, which once served as the shuttle Discovery's garage.
NBC News and news services
updated 10/31/2011 11:24:37 PM ET 2011-11-01T03:24:37

Boeing is taking over one of NASA's old space shuttle hangars to build a new capsule that the company hopes will lift astronauts to orbit in four or five years.

More than 100 Boeing, NASA and state and federal officials gathered in the massive empty hangar — Orbiting Processing Facility No. 3 — for the announcement of the first-of-its-kind agreement allowing a private company to take over the government property.

The aerospace company expects to create 550 high-tech jobs at Kennedy Space Center over the next four years, 140 of them by the end of next year. That's less than 10 percent of the approximately 6,000 shuttle jobs lost in Florida over the past several years, but Gov. Rick Scott and other lawmakers at the ceremony said they expect additional hirings by the commercial space industry.

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NASA is counting on companies such as Boeing to ferry cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station in three to five years. Until then, the space agency will continue to shell out tens of millions of dollars per seat on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The Soyuz is the only way to get astronauts to and from the space station, ever since Atlantis returned from the final shuttle flight in July. A Soyuz rocket failure in August highlighted the risk of relying on just one type of craft.

America's last hope
During Monday's hourlong ceremony, lawmakers said the commercial industry is America's last hope, anytime soon, for U.S. astronauts to fly on U.S. spaceships from U.S. soil.

The Obama administration requested $850 million in NASA's 2012 budget for the commercial space effort. The House slashed that to $312 million, but the Senate set the figure at $500 million.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and a one-time space shuttle flier, said that $500 million was a reasonable figure, given the nation's current economic situation. However, NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, told journalists that level of funding would "likely add a year's delay" to the plan for commercializing space station transport operations.

Boeing expects to start removing shuttle platforms and modifying the hangar to suit its own purposes in the next few months.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of commercial programs for Boeing, said it will be sad to see all the shuttle equipment go.

"The shuttle's such an iconic vehicle. These marvelous buildings have a lot of memory," said Mulholland, a former shuttle manager. "But you've always got to be looking forward. So while the shuttle is remarkable, we're looking forward to the next phase of space exploration."

Boeing wants to ferry astronauts not only to the International Space Station, but to a commercial scientific outpost planned for orbit by Bigelow Aerospace. Each if Boeing's CST-100 capsules would hold seven people. A test flight is planned by 2015.

The agreement calls for Boeing to use the hangar for 15 years, with an option to renew for another five. Then it will be up to Boeing to demolish the building, on NASA's get-rid-of list. Officials stressed that Boeing is not paying NASA any rent. Instead, NASA is turning the facility over to Space Florida, a state economic development agency, which will work out the lease arragements with Boeing.

The hangar is 197 feet long, 1,650 feet wide and 95 feet high. It was last used to ready the shuttle Discovery for its final launch earlier this year.

More deals may be ahead
NASA wants to turn the space center — long a government-only locale — into a multi-user spaceport. Kennedy Space Center's director, Bob Cabana, said that other buildings would go up for grabs, eventually including the center's two other Orbiter Processing Facilities. Space Florida is working on more deals.

In addition to Boeing, three other companies are receiving spaceship development funds from NASA, including SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin. Sierra Nevada already has an agreement with NASA to use Kennedy Space Center facilities, but it hasn't yet struck a deal with Space Florida like Boeing's.

Space Florida's president, Frank DiBello, said $40 million to $50 million would be invested in upgrading Orbiter Processing Facility No. 3, on a schedule that would be dependent on Boeing's performance on job creation and investment. John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, said "we're still working on the final details" of the lease plan.

NASA is due to select at least two companies next year to proceed with plans to build spaceships for servicing the space station. During a teleconference with reporters, Elbon confirmed previous statements that Boeing would proceed with its plans for the CST-100 only if it won NASA's commercial space competition.

Throughout the ceremony, NASA officials and others stressed that Kennedy Space Center is not going out of business. "Ladies and gentlemen, the dream is alive," Nelson told the crowd.

President Barack Obama hailed the commercialization agreement in a NASA statement.

"The next era of space exploration won't wait, and so we can't wait for Congress to do its job and give our space program the funding it needs," Obama said. "That's why my administration will be pressing forward, in partnership with Space Florida and the private sector, to create jobs and make sure America continues to lead the world in exploration and discovery."

NASA relinquished its shuttle fleet to concentrate on new rockets and spacecraft that will be able to carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. The schedule calls for NASA to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by the mid-2020s, and start manned missions to Mars and its moons in the mid-2030s.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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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