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NASA Moves Step Closer to Space Taxis

September 20, 2011 12:21:28 AM

Irene Klotz


NASA hopes some U.S. companies will soon be giving the Russians a run for their money to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

Under a new draft solicitation unveiled Monday, the U.S. government is planning to buttress private space efforts to the tune of $1.6 billion beginning in July.

The agency intends to select at least two, and possibly more, candidate space taxis for funding, part of an ongoing effort to hand over crew transportation services to the space station to commercial providers. Since the space shuttles were retired this summer, Russia has a monopoly on station crew ferry flights, a service that costs more than $50 million per person.

ANALYSIS: Russian Firm Plans Commercial Space Station

Currently, the only other country that can fly people into orbit is China, which is not part of the space station program.

“Every year we do not have a commercial crew capability, the station is at risk,” NASA’s commercial spaceflight development director Phil McAlister said at an industry briefing in Florida on Friday.

The vulnerability of a $100 billion project was exposed last month after a Russian launch accident, which claimed a station cargo ship. The Progress freighter uses a nearly identical upper-stage motor on the Soyuz rockets that fly crew to the station.

ANALYSIS: The Shuttle Is Dead; Long Live The Politics

The accident is delaying the arrival of the next station crew to at least mid-November. Any additional postponements could force managers to leave the station unoccupied for the first time in 11 years.

For its third round of Commercial Crew Development initiatives, NASA is looking for full-fledged systems — everything from launch vehicles, to spaceships, to mission control, the draft solicitation shows.

NASA currently is backing spaceship development work at four firms — Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin, an aerospace startup owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Image: Artist’s rendering of Sierra Nevada‘s Dream Chaser spaceplane, one of several budding commercial space taxis getting support from NASA. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.