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Space-race countdown

It's down to the home stretch for NASA's $500 million version of "American Idol" for private-sector spaceships - otherwise known as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. The space agency says it will announce the winners of the competition at 4 p.m. ET Friday. So far, no one in the know has signaled who will be getting the money, but there are clear front-runners and dark horses.

NASA's announcement will set the clock ticking for the development of new spaceships capable of transferring cargo and crew members between Earth and the international space station, starting in the 2010 time frame.

In the past, NASA has paid the full cost of creating space transportation systems, and it will still work that way for the Constellation program that is supposed to bring Americans back to the moon. But the COTS program works differently: The agency would dole out comparative dribbles of money for companies to demonstrate flight systems created primarily with private backing.

If the systems work, NASA would buy services from the spaceship companies - kind of like paying cab fare rather than having a car custom-built for your use.

Six finalists were named in May, and since then, NASA has been getting more detailed information about how those six intend to come up with the goods.

About the only way to handicap the field at this point is by assessing the public statements and coalition-building being done by those six finalists - and the most frequently mentioned teams are led by California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX; and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler.

Why those two? Money has a lot to do with it. Both teams have signaled they're ready to put tens upon tens of millions of dollars into their respective systems: the Falcon rocket and the Dragon capsule for SpaceX, and the Kistler K-1 launch vehicle for Rocketplane Kistler. Both teams say their systems would provide an end-to-end solution for bringing cargo as well as crew to the space station.

Both teams also have brought in partners that have dealt with NASA in the past and can ramp up quickly to get their projects off the ground: SpaceX's partners include Spacehab, which is also a COTS finalist in its own right, while Rocketplane Kistler has Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin in its corner.

To be sure, there are cons as well as pros for both teams: SpaceX's first attempt to launch a rocket failed, apparently due to a corroded nut. Rocketplane hasn't really launched anything yet, and it could face a challenge in taking advantage of the assets from Kistler Aerospace (which it acquired just this year) and Orbital Sciences (which it teamed up with just last month).

So don't count out the other finalists: Andrews Space, SpaceDev, Spacehab and t/Space. Who knows? The players in the SpaceX/Spacehab team could even be shuffled around to cover different positions.

And no matter what happens, other competitors in the private space race - such as Constellation Services International and PlanetSpace - will press on in hopes that the leaders will falter and leave the field open for a dramatic comeback. Seen in that light, Friday's announcement may well be more like the starting bell than the final gong.