Hailing The Space Taxi

This week, NASA announced that it would award a combined $6.8 billion “space taxi” contract to Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX:

Essentially, Boeing’s CST-100 Space Capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon will each send a test flight to the International Space Station to demonstrate their space taxi capabilities. Each team will fly to the ISS with a NASA crew member and cargo, show that they can dock to the station, and return to Earth safely. Astronauts could be taking a ride on the space taxi pilot program as soon as 2017.

Christian Davenport explains what makes the move so significant:

The announcement of the “commercial crew” awards is a big step toward allowing the U.S. to end its reliance on Russia, which has been ferrying American astronauts to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttle three years ago. The arrangement hasn’t been cheap: the Russians currently charge $71 million per seat, and NASA has in a single year sent more than $400 million to Russia for these taxi rides. If the schedule doesn’t slip, and Boeing and SpaceX prove their vehicles are safe, NASA should see its astronauts launched on U.S. soil with American rockets by as early as 2017.

The awards represent a significant shift for NASA, which has long owned and operated its own rockets. Instead of going to space on government-owned vehicles, NASA’s astronauts would essentially rent space on ships provided by Boeing and SpaceX.

Meanwhile, Adam Minter praises the way NASA put the project together:

NASA’s decision to fund a competition — known as Commercial Crew– to develop rockets for manned space flights has been one of the agency’s biggest successes in decades. Just three years ago, upon the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA didn’t have any way to transport U.S. astronauts other than by hitching expensive rides on Russian spacecraft. Today the agency was able to choose between three viable spacecraft designs, all of which will be ready to fly in 2017, according to their manufacturers. The three were developed for less than $2 billion cumulatively. It’s been a welcome change from NASA’s history of program delays, cost-overruns, all-too-cozy contractor relationships and missions driven by patronage.