By the end of 2017, it will be «taxis» from private companies Boeing and SpaceX that will take NASA astronauts into space.
The US space agency has just signed a contract with these private companies worth US $ 6.8 billion to help finalize the construction of the new spacecraft, which should house a team of seven astronauts.
Since NASA withdrew its spacecraft program in 2011, Americans have relied on Russia and its Soyuz vehicles to travel to the International Space Station (ISS).
But disagreements with the Moscow government over recent events in Ukraine have given an increasingly bitter flavor to the current agreements on the use of Soyuz by the United States.
There is also the question of the price per flight: Russia charges $ 70 million per astronaut, a sum that American officials consider excessive.
End Russian dependency
«From day one, the Obama administration made it clear that the largest nation on Earth should not depend on other nations to go into space,» NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the press.
«Thanks to the leadership of President Obama and the hard work of NASA and our industry teams, today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from US soil in US spacecraft, and ending our total dependence on Russia for 2017, «he said.
In 2010, President Obma tasked NASA with «seeding» resources into competent national companies to restore US capability.
Since it was entrusted with this mission, the space agency distributed almost US $ 1.5 billion in investment.
Most of those funds went to three private companies: Boeing, in Texas; SpaceX of California, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), based in Colorado.
Ideally, NASA would have wanted to continue investing in the three companies, but the resources did not reach everything and it had to choose its favorites.
What will the ships be like?
The Boeing CST-100
The CST-100 Crew Space Transportation will be able to carry seven people to the ISS.
The spacecraft is designed to go into space aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
To return to Earth, it will be assisted by a heat shield and a parachute.
At a superficial level it has certain similarities with the Apollo system, of course with state-of-the-art technology.
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule
SpaceX already operates an unmanned freight transport system to the ISS.
In 2012 he completed the first private transportation mission to the ISS in history, and will make his fourth trip at the end of September 2014.
Looking ahead to 2017, SpaceX is working on an update of this spacecraft to include the transport of humans.
Under the contract signed this week, NASA will give SpaceX $ 2.6 billion to complete the Dragon manned spacecraft project.
But that funding is far less than the $ 4.2 billion Boeing will receive for its CST-100.
While … preparing more ambitious trips
Part of NASA’s strategy in outsourcing transportation to the ISS to the private sector is to want to free up a budget to work on more ambitious space exploration missions.
The agency is leading the development of a super rocket and a capsule that could travel much further within the solar system, to the Moon and Mars.
This rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), and the crew vehicle, called the Orion, are too large to perform the regular functions of a «taxi» to the ISS.
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