Image: The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is grappled by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm on Oct. 10, 2012 during the spacecraft's first cargo delivery mission for NASA under a $1.6 billion deal for commercial cargo delivery.
 NASA
The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is grappled by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm on Oct. 10, 2012 during the spacecraft's first cargo delivery mission for NASA under a $1.6 billion deal for commercial cargo delivery.
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updated 10/19/2012 2:29:54 PM ET 2012-10-19T18:29:54

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Representatives from the three different companies chosen by NASA to develop private space taxis to carry astronauts to orbit say their vehicles are making substantial progress toward launching people into orbit within the next few years.

The companies — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), The Boeing Company, and Sierra Nevada Corp. — are competing to fill the gap left by NASA's retired space shuttles for the launching of cargo and crews to the International Space Station. Each private space taxi firm has received funding from NASA under the Commercial Crew integrated Capability program (CCiCap) to complete a series of development milestones with the goal of taking over transportation to low-Earth orbit from the Russians.

"We're going great guns, we're working very hard, and we hope to have people flying very soon inside the Dragon," SpaceX's commercial crew project manager Garrett Reisman said Wednesday (Oct. 17) here at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight.

21st century space capsules
SpaceX's Dragon space capsule has already made two unmanned flights to the International Space Station this year under NASA's cargo delivery program. Work now is focused on outfitting the capsule to carry up to seven people by adding a launch abort capability and life support system, as well as designing spacesuits and the crew cabin layout.

The vehicle, which launches on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, could make its first crewed test flights in mid-2015, Reisman said.

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Meanwhile, aerospace veteran Boeing is working on its CST-100 vehicle, a capsule intended to fly atop United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket, which has a proven track record launching unmanned satellites. The CST-100 is designed to carry up to seven people, and return to touch down on land via parachutes and airbags. [ CST-100: Boeing's Private Space Capsule (Photos) ]

"The real focus here is getting the final design and implementing a system that is safe, reliable and affordable," John Mulholland, vice president of commercial programs in Boeing's Space Exploration department, said today (Oct. 18).

The company just recently completed a preliminary design milestone called integrated systems review, and plans to set the vehicle's final design plans with a critical design review in April 2014. That should pave the way for the first people to fly on CST-100 in 2016, Mulholland said.

Have space plane, will travel
Sierra Nevada's entry into this new space race is called the Dream Chaser, and differs form the Dragon and CST-100 cone-shaped capsules in its winged space plane design.

Dream Chaser, too, will carry a crew of seven and launch on the Atlas 5, and is targeting a first manned launch in 2016 or 2017. Its goals for the near future are furthering the vehicle's design and performing preliminary test flights.

"When I first started looking at building a vehicle for this marketplace, people basically laughed," said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems. "People kept constantly saying, 'It can't be done, it can't be done.' We believe it not only can be done, it is being done. We really are on the verge of moving this whole industry form theory to practice."

While all three companies are initially developing their spacecraft to serve NASA, they intend eventually to carry a wide range of passengers, including space tourists, scientists and astronauts from countries without their own launch vehicles.

"Once we have this thing up and running for NASA we are free to use it for other purposes," Reisman said. "It does bring up a bunch of interesting possibilities. But this is all after we accomplish our primary job, which is getting Americans back into space on American vehicles."

You can follow SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.Follow SPACE.com on Twitter @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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