The space shuttle’s replacements are on deck.
NASA announced the next space vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. The spacecraft will be designed and built by Boeing and SpaceX in a commercial contract valued at $6.8 billion.
Boeing received $4.2 billion, while SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion, to deliver the craft and fly six missions each.
"It is a new way of doing business," said NASA administrator Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., by combining the private sector with the expertise of NASA.
NASA announced the results of what was a three-way competition between Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. in a press conference at Kennedy Space Center.
SpaceX is building a manned version of its Dragon capsule, which has completed several missions to resupply the International Space Station. Boeing's spacecraft, called CST-100, has yet to fly.
Boeing and SpaceX are responsible for the design, construction and certification of their spacecraft. Unlike past space efforts, they will not be built directly by NASA, said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA's commercial crew program.
These will be the first American spacecraft capable of transporting humans since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. The first crew of four astronauts are expected to hitch a ride by 2017.
NASA is currently relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the space station, at a cost of $70 million per seat, CNN reports. For unmanned cargo transport, NASA contracted with private companies.
The Dragon capsule, designed by SpaceX and the Cygnus spacecraft, built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, have flown several unmanned resupply missions to the space station.
NASA and Lockheed Martin are building their own manned spacecraft, the larger Orion crew vehicle, for deep space missions, such as to an asteroid or Mars. The European Space Agency will build the Orion's service module.
"It boggles the mind to think of the possibilities of what we're going to accomplish," said Mike Fincke, a NASA astronaut who spoke at the conference. "NASA is poised to explore this beckoning universe."
Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter @GavinStern or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.