NASA injects $1.1bn into private space craft companies

NASA is pumping more than $1.1bn into three commercial space flight companies, including SpaceX, as part of its Commercial Crew Program. Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation will together share a new bounty  to help explore reusable space craft that can put astronauts into Earth orbit, with the goal being crewed orbital demonstration missions by the middle of this decade.

Boeing takes away the biggest purse, with $460m, while SpaceX is shortly behind with $440. Sierra Nevada grabs $212.5m. All three companies will need to demonstrate that their craft can meet NASA's full mission safety requirements, with certification expected to take place in a future phase of the program.

"NASA will build on its rich human spaceflight history by investing in commercial development of fully integrated crew transportation system designs under the next round of funded SAAs, Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap)" NASA

NASA's three selected partners narrows the field down from seven in the previous round, which together shared a $50m bounty. SpaceX is the furthest along so far, having already managed to dock its unmanned Dragon capsule with the International Space Station earlier this year.

"This is a decisive milestone in human spaceflight and sets an exciting course for the next phase of American space exploration," SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk said in a statement today. "SpaceX, along with our partners at NASA, will continue to push the boundaries of space technology to develop the safest, most advanced crew vehicle ever flown."

Musk says that SpaceX aims to undertake a manned flight by 2015, outfitting Dragon with seats for seven astronauts and "the most technically advanced launch escape system ever developed" that will include abort possibilities whether on the launch pad or in orbit. There will also be a propulsive landing system for ground touchdowns on the capsule's legs.

The Commercial Crew Program isn't the only project NASA has on the go to push the limits of space flight, however. Operating in parallel is development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle spacecraft and Space Launch System, a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket that, the agency says, "will provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit."