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After the shuttle: NASA gets set for second space race

NASA is retiring its space shuttle fleet, and many are wondering what’s next. Well, tighten your seat belt: The second great space race is about to begin. By NBC News' Jay Barbree.
Image: CST-100
An artist's conception shows Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule approaching the International Space Station.Boeing

NASA is retiring its space shuttle fleet, and many are wondering what’s next. Well, tighten your seat belt: The second great space race is about to begin, and it could shave two or three years off astronauts' down time without something American to fly.

Fifty years ago, President John Kennedy challenged the old Soviet Union to race America to the moon. Today, President Barack Obama and NASA are taking a page from Kennedy’s playbook.

As the sun sets on American spaceships for what some experts argue will be at least five to seven years, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, a veteran astronaut himself, has come up with a twofer — a cost-cutting plan that will have private rockets and spacecraft builders racing to the finish line with new hardware.

Last month, NASA awarded more than $269 million in contracts to build commercial spaceships: two capsules, a space plane and a gumdrop spaceship to taxi astronauts to and from the International Space Station or other destinations in low Earth orbit.

Here’s the contract lineup:

  • Blue Origin, a secretive company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, was awarded $22 million.  Blue Origin will work on its gumdrop capsule and an escape system.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. received a contract for $80 million. This little-known company plans to build a reusable Dream Chaser space plane that looks and feels like a mini-space shuttle.  The craft is designed to ride a rocket into orbit and land on a runway.
  • A little more than $92 million went to the Boeing Co., the foursome’s most experienced aerospace veteran, for development of its Apollo-style CST-100 capsule. Boeing hopes its CST-100 will also visit private space stations like the one to be launched by Bigelow Aerospace.
  • SpaceX received $75 million. The company has two successful Cape Canaveral launches under its belt.

Six months ago, something happened that shook the space establishment to its roots.   SpaceX’s privately built rocket, named Falcon 9, climbed into orbit and turned loose a privately built spacecraft named Dragon. The Dragon capsule scooted around Earth twice, maneuvering its flight path before parachuting into the eastern Pacific, 500 miles from its flight control center in Hawthorne, Calif.

It was an unqualified success for an American company participating in NASA’s commercial space adventure. SpaceX is putting $600 million into the project, while NASA is providing $278 million in seed money.

SpaceX says it could be delivering supplies to the International Space Station by the end of this year or early next year. And the company adds that astronauts could fly into orbit in upgraded Dragon capsules as early as 2014.

The success of the new kids on the block has the old boys nervous, and this works to the advantage of NASA and American taxpayers.

Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft is obviously the Cadillac of the entries in this great second space race. "Assuming adequate NASA funding, we can have our commercial crew transportation system operational in 2015," John Elbon, the company’s vice president and program manager of commercial crew programs, told me.

Elbon added, “Boeing is offering a complete integrated turnkey operation that includes a launch vehicle.”

Wow!  That means American astronauts would be riding their own ships to and from the International Space Station in three or four years, not seven or more.  Until then, they will be hitching a ride on Russian spacecraft, a fact that sticks in the craw of many.

Choosing the rocket
The key here would be the launch vehicle for Boeing’s CST-100.

Standing by is arguably the world’s most reliable rocket: a U.S.-European vehicle that is an upgraded version of the space shuttle’s solid booster rocket, which has flown perfectly 216 times, plus France’s Ariane 5 rocket as a second stage, which has flown 41 times without a problem.

The rocket, called Liberty, is being offered by ATK Space Launch Systems. It’s capable of carrying all crew vehicles in development today.

"Both stages of Liberty were designed for human rating from the beginning," said ATK Vice President Charlie Precourt, a veteran astronaut and former director of NASA’s flight crew operations.  The other rockets haven’t yet gone through the time-consuming process to be certified as safe for flying humans.

What’s more, an earlier variant of Liberty has already flown in the form of the Ares 1-X rocket, and it already has its launch pad and facilities to accommodate astronauts.  Although the Ares project was canceled last year, that experience gives Liberty an extra boost in this second space race.  “We can perform a test flight in late 2013 and deliver crew by 2015,” Precourt said.

Boeing is currently talking with the Liberty folks about using its rocket to boost the CST-100’s first flights, with hopes of making a decision next month. 

If ATK’s Liberty and Boeing’s CST-100 team up, the U.S.-European rocket should open the door for customers in international governments desiring their own space program.

“Even though Boeing will have to settle on a launch vehicle to meet its first flight in 2015,” Boeing’s Elbon said, “this does not preclude recertifying other launch vehicles in the future.” 

In fact, Boeing is talking to other rocket makers. The company is a partner in United Launch Alliance, operators of the highly successful Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, which are not yet rated to fly humans.

Eating rocket dust?
Boeing reportedly believes it has the time to man-rate and build the astronaut support facilities for the Atlas 5, and may ask Liberty merely to stand by for possible later use. 

Critics say the huge aerospace company will be taking more chances that something could go wrong with the Atlas 5 instead of using Liberty. "Boeing could find itself eating SpaceX’s dust," one observer said.

Once the new players from SpaceX demonstrate they can safely deliver cargo to the International Space Station, they will be on solid footing to outfit their Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. The question is, can they beat Boeing’s CST-100?

You can bet it’ll be a race to the finish line by the old and the new. And when there are two or more players in a market, the competition cuts costs for the consumers — in this case, NASA and the American taxpayers. All of us end up being the ultimate winners.

Who needs a one horse race?

More from Cape Canaveral:

NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every American spaceflight. He has written eight books about space science and exploration — including a newly updated edition of “Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings,” written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. "Moon Shot" is available from , , , and