WASHINGTON – NASA picked three aerospace companies Friday to build small rocketships to take astronauts to the International Space Station.
This is the third phase of NASA’s efforts to get private space companies to take over the job of the now-retired space shuttle. The companies will share more than $1.1 billion. Two of the ships are capsules like in the Apollo era, and the third is closer in design to the space shuttle.
Once the spaceships are built, NASA plans to hire the private companies to taxi astronauts into space within five years. Until they are ready, NASA is paying Russia about $63 million per astronaut to do the job.
NASA hopes that by having private firms ferry astronauts into low Earth orbit, it can focus on larger long-term goals, like sending crews to a nearby asteroid and eventually Mars. The private companies can also make money in tourism and other non-NASA business.
The three companies are the Boeing Co. of Houston; Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif.; and Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colo.
They are quite different companies. Boeing is one of the oldest and largest space companies with a long history of building and launching rockets and working for NASA, going back to the Mercury days. SpaceX is a relatively new company started by Elon Musk, who helped create PayPal and runs the electric car company Tesla Motors. Sierra Nevada has been in the space business for 25 years but mostly on a much smaller scale than Boeing.
NASA’s commercial crew development program started with seven companies. The other companies that were not chosen can still build private rocketships and NASA still has the option to hire them to ferry astronauts at a later date, NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto said.