Nasa has chosen Boeing and SpaceX to build commercial space taxis to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station.
The highly anticipated decision, which eliminated the third contender Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space shuttle, was announced on Tuesday by Nasa’s administrator Charlie Bolden.
Part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Programme, the contracts will see the USA regaining the capability to launch astronauts to space aboard domestically made vehicles from US soil by 2017.
Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, Nasa has been dependent on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the space station, paying some $70m per seat on the Soyuz capsule.
Regaining its own crew transportation capabilities has become ever more important with the deteriorating relationships between the US and Russia in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine.
"From day one, the Obama Administration made clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space," Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden said at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"Thanks to the leadership of President Obama, the hard work of our Nasa and industry teams, and support from Congress, today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from US soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017,” he said, adding that turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will allow Nasa to focus on more ambitious deep space exploration and a human mission to Mars."
Boeing, a favourite in the tender and the only one of the competitors that performed a critical design review on schedule, succeeded with its CST-100 space capsule and was awarded $4.2bn (£2.6bn) to develop and test the hardware.
Boeing's CST-100 space capsule has been unveiled earlier this year
SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, will receive $2.6bn to deliver a manned version of its Dragon spacecraft, which is already successfully delivering cargo to the ISS.
The two companies have to perform at least one manned test flight with at least one Nasa astronaut aboard to demonstrate the technology. The test will include in-orbit manoeuvres and docking with the ISS. Only after that, the technology will be certified by Nasa and the companies awarded further contracts to carry out between two and six manned missions to the orbital outpost. The spacecraft will also serve as emergency escape vehicles in case of an accident aboard the ISS. Nasa hopes the project will help expand the station’s permanent crew as it will allow bringing more astronauts at once.
While the current Soyuz can only carry three people at once, both of the selected concepts will provide room for twice as many astronauts.
"We are excited to see our industry partners close in on operational flights to the International Space Station, an extraordinary feat industry and the Nasa family began just four years ago," said Kathy Lueders, manager of Nasa's Commercial Crew Program. "This space agency has long been a technology innovator, and now we also can say we are an American business innovator, spurring job creation and opening up new markets to the private sector.”
The companies will own and operate the crew transportation systems and be able to sell human space transportation services to other customers in addition to Nasa.
Nasa said it will keep working with the companies that lost out in the battle for the first private astronaut transportation contracts to potentially help them bring their concepts to life.
While Boeing’s CST-100 is designed to be launched aboard Atlas 5 rockets, SpaceX is expected to use its own Falcon 9 vehicles.