NASA launches private firms into space race

This Boeing capsule could be mounted on any number of rockets.
This Boeing capsule could be mounted on any number of rockets.Boeing
/ Source: Discovery Channel

NASA may be getting ready to end work on its Orion capsule, but private firms working on three, separate passenger spaceships are just getting started.

The vehicles are part of a new "fly commercial" initiative outlined by the Obama administration, which is requesting $6 billion over the next five years to develop alternative transportation for ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. With the space shuttles retiring, the U.S. government is dependent on Russia for space taxi services.

"I believe we'll start to see private orbital flight by 2014 at the latest," said commercial space guru Peter Diamandis, who orchestrated the X Prize competition that led to the first privately funded suborbital manned spaceflights in 2004.

While Congress debates the proposal, NASA is moving ahead with seed money for two new spaceships:

  • Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, a winged, reflyable space plane based on a vehicle designed by engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center in the 1980s to serve as backup to the space shuttles and as a space station lifeboat.
  • An as-yet-unnamed Boeing capsule based on previous manned spacecraft proposals for NASA, including an alternative Orion vehicle. The capsule would be able to fly on any number of rockets, much like communications satellites and other spacecraft do today.

A third spaceship called Dragon is being developed by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which already holds a NASA contract to deliver cargo to the space station. The company, owned and operated by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, has designed Dragon to carry passengers as well. A proposal to add $300 million to the firm's contract to design Dragon's emergency escape system is pending.

Yet another spaceship known as the Cygnus is being built by Orbital Sciences Corp. to deliver cargo to the space station atop the company's Taurus 2 rocket. Like SpaceX, Orbital has received millions of dollars in development money from NASA. Orbital has said the Cygnus could be adapted to carry crew as well as cargo.

Among the spaceships being designed to service the International Space Station are, from left, Orbital Sciences' Cygnus, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser and SpaceX's Dragon.

The companies are among dozens of startups and established aerospace contractors seeking to take over passenger space transportation services for the U.S. government and other customers, including Bigelow Aerospace, which plans to fly inflatable habitats that can be used for scientific research, commercial and educational programs, and tourism.

"One hundred or so years ago, a young entrepreneur named Bill Boeing was able to develop the products that enabled the transfer of mail across the country in airplanes," said Brewster Shaw, a former astronaut and Boeing's vice president and general manager for NASA systems, told reporters at a Washington press conference.

"Any of you who flew into D.C. probably rode on one of Bill Boeing's products. For the last 50 years or so, we've been involved in every human space exploration program that was executed by the USA.," Shaw said. "We so much want to see the International Space Station live up to its potential and so much of that depends on a robust logistics train for cargo and crew."

This report was supplemented by