[Note (added at 18:00 MDT): Some folks are saying the headline here is misleading, and on further thought I see the point. It's not that NASA selected SpaceX to return astronauts to space; it was one of three companies and in my opinion (based on scheduling) that they'll be the first to do so. I don't like changing headlines on posts for various reasons, so I've decided to keep this one intact and leave this note here at the top of the post so everyone sees it.]
BIG news: NASA announced this morning that it has awarded a total of $1.1 billion in grants to three different companies to put American astronauts back into space. The kicker: they chose SpaceX as the company, and their Falcon rocket as the vehicle, to be the first to return US astronauts to space from American soil... and this may happen as soon as 2015!
NASA retired the Space Shuttle last year, and has had to rely on foreign partners to launch American astronauts into orbit ever since. While NASA is developing a new launch system (that is, a human-rated rocket), it won't be ready for quite some time.
In May, SpaceX showed that it can successfully launch an uncrewed rocket and capsule into orbit and dock with the International Space Station. Riding on the wave of this mission, NASA is giving SpaceX $440 million dollars to develop and build the hardware needed to launch humans into orbit.
SpaceX has created this (pretty cool) promo video with the highlights:
The Dragon capsule is already essentially ready to carry humans, but after the two Shuttle disasters, NASA has more stringent requirements for human safety that must be met. What this boils down to is an abort system that can carry the crew away safely in case of a catastrophic problem. SpaceX is designing a rocket system for the Dragon capsule that will have sufficient power to take it rapidly away from the Falcon rocket and get the astronauts on board back on Earth safely, which may involve either an ocean splashdown (which the Dragon capsule is designed for anyway) or the ability to touchdown on the ground on landing legs. It will also work at any point of the mission, from the moment of launch to just before achieving orbit.
SpaceX expects to have this system built and ready to go very soon - they announced they will be ready for their first crewed flight as early as 2015. That's about the timeframe that's been expected for a while now, but the company had to prove itself with the mission in May, and also win this new NASA contract. Between now and then they plan 10 cargo flights to the space station as well which will help iron out any equipment wrinkles and prep them for human flight.
This really is huge news. There has been a lot of rending of garments and tearing of hair online and in political speeches about NASA not being able to put humans in space. I have written about this myself many, many times, and as I've said I'm not convinced at this stage of history that NASA should be building rockets for the "routine" launching of people and supplies to orbit. Their job is to innovate and clear the path, to look ahead, while leaner, more flexible companies like SpaceX can follow. The United States is a long way yet from an actual launch of humans back into orbit, but this is a giant stride forward.
And there's more: NASA also awarded the Sierra Nevada Corporation $212 million to continue to develop their Dream Chaser space plane, a vehicle that will be mounted on top of a rocket and capable of bringing humans to and from low Earth orbit as well. Testing of the Dream Chaser has been going pretty well, and the company expects to be able to start launching humans into space in 2016. This is also fantastic news! The more people we have building these vehicles, the better. And since Sierra Nevada's HQ is down the road from me in Louisville, Colorado, this gives this news a little bit of an added kick for me.
Boeing actually received the largest share of the NASA grant, getting $460 million to develop their CST-100 spacecraft, which looks much like NASA's Orion capsule (itself a capsule much like that of Apollo; a proven design). and can be mounted on a variety of rockets to launch humans to low-Earth orbit.
I hear so many people lamenting NASA's lack of ability to launch humans into space. I agree, and think we should be doing this, but I think a lot of these complaints are misguided - a lot of these complaints are about private industry, saying NASA should be developing this tech. I disagree. I strongly feel that NASA partnering with private industry is the best and strongest way to get back into space and stay there. It's the best of both worlds: NASA's government backing and history gives them some stability which private enterprise may lack, and the companies themselves don't have the massive bureaucratic overhead NASA is saddled with.
I just hope that with this, and with more success, both the White House and Congress will see that NASA and private industry are critical to our future in space, and fund these ventures as fully as possible. Our future in space is - for the moment - bright and alluring. May it always be so.