CAPE CANAVERAL/WASHINGTON - NASA will partner with Boeing and SpaceX to build commercially owned and operated "space taxis" to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, ending US dependence on Russia for rides, officials said on Tuesday.
The US space agency also considered a bid by privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp, but opted to award long-time aerospace contractor Boeing and California's SpaceX with contracts valued at a combined $6.8 billion to develop, certify and fly their seven-person capsules. Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion to SpaceX's $2.6 billion. SpaceX is run by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, also the chief executive officer of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors.
"SpaceX is deeply honoured by the trust NASA has placed in us," said Musk, a South Africa-born, Canadian American billionaire. "It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species."
The awards position Boeing and SpaceX to be ready for commercial flight services in 2017, said Kathy Leuders, manager for NASA's Commercial Crew programme. She said both contracts have the same requirements.
"The companies proposed the value within which they were able to do the work and the government accepted that," Leuders told reporters in a conference call.
The contract has taken on new urgency given rising tensions between the United States and Russia over its annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Boeing's CST-100 spaceship would launch aboard Atlas 5 rockets, built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing. SpaceX, which already has a $1.3 billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the space station, intends to upgrade its Dragon freighter to carry astronauts.
NASA has said that in addition to test flights, the awards would include options for between two and six operational missions.
By flying astronauts commercially from the United States, NASA could end Russia's monopoly on space station crew transport. The agency pays $70 million per person for rides on Russian Soyuz capsules, the only flights available for astronauts since the retirement of the US space shuttle fleet in 2011.