* First commercial space taxi could debut in three years
* NASA wants to insulate spaceflight from politics
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 28 NASA is counting
on four companies to return the United States to space after
the shuttle is retired this summer under a program that should
help insulate spaceflight from the mercurial winds of politics,
NASA managers said Thursday.
The firms -- Boeing (BA.N), Space Exploration Technologies,
Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin -- will share $269.3
million in NASA funds this year to work on spaceships and
supporting technologies needed to fly astronauts to the
International Space Station.
If successful, the first vehicles could be ready for flight
in about three years, though that presumes additional
government investment in 2012 and 2013.
The alternative, however, is for the United States to
continue to pay Russia for spaceflight services, which cost $51
million per person now and will increase to $63 million a seat
"Both NASA and our industry partners are going to have to
change the way we do business in order for this program to
succeed, but the benefits of this new approach are clear and
compelling. It will ensure that U.S. astronauts will be
transported to and from the International Space Station on
American-based spacecraft, thereby minimizing reliance on
foreign systems," said Phil McAlister, NASA's acting director
of commercial spaceflight.
"We have seen how tenuous our human space endeavors can be.
We cannot have the future of human spaceflight completely
dependent on the prevailing political winds or partisan
concerns," McAlister added.
Under the new commercial crew initiative, partner companies
will be paid fixed amounts when they achieve set milestones,
and they will contribute some of their own funds toward
development costs. Traditionally, NASA paid its contractors'
costs, plus bonus fees.
Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, founded and led
by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is the most advanced of the
four, having flown its Falcon 9 rocket twice and a cargo
version of its Dragon capsule once.
With its new $75 million investment from NASA, privately
owned SpaceX plans to develop an emergency launch escape system
and outfit Dragon to carry up to seven passengers.
Boeing, which was awarded $92.3 million, is developing a
similar seven-person capsule and plans to announce the
capsule's launch vehicle soon.
With its $80 million in NASA funding, privately held Sierra
Nevada Corp. wants to finalize the design of its seven-seater
winged craft called Dream Chaser.
And Blue Origin, founded by Amazon (AMZN.O) chief Jeff
Bezos, will use $22 million in NASA funds for technical studies
and tests leading to a design of a seven-person capsule and
reusable liquid-fueled boosters.
NASA's investment in commercial companies comes as it
prepares to retire the space shuttles after two final missions
to the International Space Station. The shuttle Endeavour is
scheduled to be launched on Friday to deliver a particle
physics experiment and spare parts. Atlantis is slated to fly
June 28 with a final load of supplies.
"We as a nation allowed this gap (in human spaceflight) to
occur so now we have to live with it," said NASA administrator
Charlie Bolden. "We as a nation can shorten the gap if we
continue to fund commercial programs, if I continue to do my
utmost to facilitate their success, so that within the next
three or four years -- instead of the next five or six years --
we have a domestic capability to put humans into orbit."
(Editing by Jane Sutton)