NASA Awards Contracts for Commercial Spaceflight

Wasting little time on implementing President Obama's new direction for NASA, the space agency awards $50 million to commercial companies for developing support transport of astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. Among the winners was Amazon founder Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin space venture.

NASA began the second day of its forget the moon campaign by introducing what the agency called the seven new pioneers of space, the private companies that are developing support transport of astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. NASA said it awarded $50 million in Space Act Agreements to the companies as one of the first steps in President Obama's dramatic new direction in U.S. manned spaceflight.
Among the winners of the awards were Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk's Space X. Other winners include Boeing, Paragon Space Development, Sierra Nevada and United Launch Alliance.
The contracts are for the development of crew concepts and technology demonstrations and investigations for future commercial support of human spaceflight. The funding comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
"The president has asked NASA to partner with the aerospace industry in a fundamentally new way, making commercially provided services the primary mode of astronaut transportation to the International Space Station," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "We are pleased to be able to quickly move forward to advance this exciting plan for NASA."
The Obama administration said Feb. 1 it plans to drop the Constellation program designed to return Americans to the moon by 2020 and instead focus on spurring commercial low-orbit flights to the ISS and developing other new space technologies that could eventually lead to manned spaceflight beyond the moon.
Bolden said at a Feb. 2 press conference an enhanced U.S. commercial space industry will create new high-tech jobs and spin off other new businesses that will seek to take advantage of affordable access to space. He also stressed that NASA has abandoned human spaceflight as the core mission of the agency.
"We are now going to have the national debate about where we should be going in space exploration," Bolden said at the National Press Club. "For any of you who think we are abandoning human spaceflight, I just respectfully disagree. ... We are not drifting."
All Space Act Agreements are designed to partially fund the development of system concepts, key technologies and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems. The selected teams also proposed matching funds from other sources that would leverage the taxpayer investment.
The signed Space Act Agreements will fund performance milestones beginning in February 2010.
"These selections represent a critical step to enable future commercial human spaceflight," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator for Exploration Systems at NASA. "These impressive proposals will advance NASA significantly along the path to using commercial services to ferry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit, and we look forward to working with the selected teams."
The long-awaited decision by the White House on the future of U.S. manned spaceflight comes after Obama announced May 5, 2009, an outside review of NASA's program to return to the moon, which former President Bush ordered in the aftermath of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident. NASA has already spent $9 billion on the Constellation program.
The blue ribbon panel of experts, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, conducted its review over the summer and concluded that the U.S. manned space program is chronically underfunded with unrealistic goals. NASA has already spent almost $7 billion on the plan to return to the moon and continues to spend approximately $300 million on the program.
"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources," the panel said. "Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today."