Image: Dragon capsule built by SpaceX
NASA TV
The private Dragon capsule built by SpaceX is seen at the end of the International Space Station's robotic arm during its undocking on Oct. 28, 2012, in this camera view. The Dragon capsule made the first commercial cargo delivery to the space station for NASA.
updated 12/10/2012 8:50:09 PM ET 2012-12-11T01:50:09

NASA has awarded $30 million to help three private companies ensure that their astronaut taxis are safe and reliable, agency officials announced Monday.

Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. will each receive about $10 million to begin certifying that their respective private spaceflight systems meet NASA requirements for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station. A second and final contract in this process — which is known as the certification products contracts, or CPC — will be awarded in the future, agency officials said.

"I congratulate the three companies for their selection," Ed Mango, Commercial Crew Program manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said in a statement. "This is the program's first major, fixed-price contract. The effort will bring space system designs within NASA's safety and performance expectations for future flights to the International Space Station."

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Colorado-based Sierra Nevada got an even $10 million to continue work on its Dream Chaser space plane. Texas-based Boeing got $9.99 million for its CST-100 capsule, while SpaceX (headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif.) received $9.59 million to keep upgrading its unmanned Dragon capsule to carry crew. [ Now Boarding: The Top 10 Private Spaceships ]

NASA hopes at least one of these vehicles will be ready to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit by 2017. The United States has lacked a homegrown manned capability since NASA's space shuttle fleet retired in July 2011; it currently relies on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do the job.

"These contracts represent important progress in restoring human spaceflight capabilities to the United States," Phil McAlister, director of NASA's Commercial Spaceflight Development Division, said in a statement. "NASA and its industry partners are committed to the goal of safely and cost-effectively launching astronauts from home within the next five years."

The CPC Phase 1 contracts run from Jan. 22, 2013 through May 30, 2014, NASA officials said. During this period, the three companies will work with the Commercial Crew Program to draw up certification plans. These plans will implement NASA's safety and performance requirements across all aspects of the transportation system, from the spacecraft to the launch vehicle and ground operations.

CPC Phase 2, which is expected to begin in mid-2014, will include the final development and verifications necessary to allow manned test flights to the space station. This second contract phase will involve a full and open competition, officials said.

The newly announced $30 million is just the latest in a series of commercial crew awards granted by NASA over the last few years. In 2010, the agency granted a total of $50 million to five companies, including Boeing and Sierra Nevada. Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX split $315 million in 2011 and $1.1 billion in another round of awards announced this past August.

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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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