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NASA Nears Multibillion-Dollar Decision on Commercial Space Taxis

Image: Rex Walheim in SpaceX capsule

NASA astronaut Rex Wahlheim looks out from the hatch of a SpaceX Dragon prototype spaceship during a visit to the company's California factory.NASA file

Private space companies are champing at the bit for a new race to the stars. Now all they need is the money.

NASA is preparing to make a decision in the coming weeks that will dole out billions of dollars toward the goal of sending American astronauts into orbit on U.S.-built spaceships for the first time since the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.

Chris Ferguson, who was the commander for the final U.S. shuttle flight, can hardly wait.

"The average American thinks the space program is over," the former NASA astronaut told NBC News. "It's not."

Today, Ferguson is director of crew and mission operations for the commercial crew program at the Boeing Co., one of the competitors in the NASA-funded space race. Two other companies are in the running: SpaceX, which is already sending cargo to the International Space Station in its robotic Dragon capsules; and Sierra Nevada Corp., which is working on a shuttle-like space plane called the Dream Chaser.

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There's lots at stake: NASA is expected to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million on commercial spaceship development efforts over the next year, and the accumulated payout will amount to billions of dollars by the time the spaceships enter service around 2017.

Whoever wins the space race will have their corporate logo on the "space taxis" that carry astronauts to and from the space station. There are other potential applications as well, ranging from space tourism and zero-G research to totally new business ventures in low Earth orbit.

How will NASA choose?

In the shorter term, NASA has to decide who will advance to the next phase of its public-private spaceship development effort, known as the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability program, or CCtCap. The three companies already are receiving a total of more than $1 billion during the current phase, called CCiCap (for Commercial Crew Integrated Capability).

NASA says all of its partners are "making great progress" in the current phase of the spaceship development effort, but the space agency is keeping mum for the time being about the next phase. Word is that NASA will announce the CCtCap winner (or winners) in the next few weeks.

The competition follows the model set by NASA's earlier $800 million effort to promote the development of robotic cargo craft capable of resupplying the space station. Two commercial launch systems were born as a result: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, and Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule. Today the two companies are sharing $3 billion in delivery contracts from NASA.

Overall, how does the competition stack up? Here's a quick look at each of the players:

SpaceX delivers the Dragon

California-based SpaceX is working to adapt its robotic Dragon capsule to carry people, which means adding equipment ranging from upholstered seats and control panels to a launch abort system. "From a SpaceX standpoint, we expect to be ready to transport crew in 2016 — about a year sooner than NASA needs it," Musk said in May.

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Like the other entrants in the space race, the Dragon V2 would carry seven astronauts plus cargo. SpaceX is in the midst of testing technologies that would allow robotic as well as crewed Dragons to make controlled retro-rocket touchdowns on land rather than relying on splashdowns. Musk estimated that Dragon rides would cost NASA roughly $20 million per seat — well below the $70 million that the Russians are charging.

SpaceX is designing the Dragon to be capable of a trip to Mars, and Musk has made clear that he'll push onward even if NASA doesn't provide CCtCap funding. "If we don't win the next NASA contract, we'll do our best to continue the development and still make it happen," he said.

Sierra Nevada readies Dream Chaser

Sierra Nevada Corp.'s mini-shuttle, the Dream Chaser, is patterned after a 20-year-old NASA design, but updated with 21st-century electronics and composites. More than 30 aerospace companies are part of Sierra Nevada's "Dream Team." The company has cooperative agreements with the European Space Agency, the German Aerospace Center and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

An atmospheric test version of the Dream Chaser had its first glide flight last October. Another autonomous flight is planned for later this year, with the first piloted Enterprise-style test coming "shortly thereafter," Sierra Nevada's Sirangelo said. The first autonomous orbital test is due in November 2016, with the first crewed flight into orbit planned in 2017.

Sierra Nevada received the smallest share in the current round of NASA funding.

Boeing banks on CST-100

Ferguson said he and his teammates at Boeing are "extraordinarily optimistic" that they'll win NASA's support for the continued development of the CST-100 space taxi. The hardware for three test capsules is ready for assembly in one of the shuttle fleet's former hangars at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In the past, Boeing has said it couldn't proceed with the CST-100 without CCtCap funding, but Ferguson hedged a bit. "If we do not emerge victorious from this, we're going to have to step back and look at the business case," he told NBC News. Ferguson said NASA's latest solicitation for space cargo services was "a new card in the deck" — which suggests an autonomous version of the CST-100 might be offered as a option.

What's the big picture?

SpaceX might seem to be the front-runner in the race, by virtue of the fact that it's been successfully flying its Falcon 9 rocket and the autonomous version of its Dragon craft for the past two years. But critics point to the fact that SpaceX often falls behind on launch and development schedules. "They need to prove their ability to meet a certain schedule," Boeing's Ferguson said.

There's also a wild card in the spaceflight deck: Blue Origin, the space venture bankrolled by Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com's founder. Although Blue Origin's orbital spaceship development program isn't getting financial support from NASA, it is getting free advice — and the company still hopes to get in on space station contracts at a later stage.

So who will come out on top?

"May the best company win," Ferguson told NBC News. "I'm convinced it's Boeing, but in any case we have to get this country back in the business of taking people into space. We want American jobs launching American rockets up to the space station. It's time to bring the business back home."

Update for 12:10 p.m. ET Aug. 28: Originally, sources indicated that the funding decision might be announced by the end of August. Since then, there have been rumblings that the announcement would come a little later, so I've updated the story to reflect that.