NASA begins funding commercial space taxis

Five firms win contracts to build escape systems, environmental controls, crew modules

As part of NASA's new roadmap , the space agency today announced that it has awarded a collective $50 million in contracts to aerospace companies to help design and build what the agency calls space taxis.

"The work has already started and we advance it one more step today," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden, speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. today. "We ask [the the partners] for their boldest ideas and concepts to make a commercial crew a reality. They've given us some great proposals. It's by no means an end. It's a fantastic start."

President Barack Obama's proposed 2011 budget, released yesterday, is changing the direction that the space agency has been headed in over the past several years. The White House is scrapping NASA's Constellation project that would have returned humans to the moon .

Instead, the budget plan calls for NASA to sign contracts with commercial businesses to create what are essentially space taxis designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and eventually, further into space.

The contracts, funded with about $50 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 monies, were awarded to Blue Origin LLC in Kent, Wash., The St. Louis-based Boeing Co.Paragon Space Development Corp. in Tucson, Ariz., Sierra Nevada Corp. in Louisville, Colo. and United Launch Alliance in Centennial, Colo.

Blue Origin was awarded a contract worth $3.7 million to partially fund the creation of a launch escape system and a crew module. Paragon won a $1.4 million pact to help NASA build an environmental control and air system and United Launch Alliance was awarded $6.7 million to build an emergency detection system to monitor vehicle health. Sierra Nevada Corporation will receive $20 million and The Boeing Co. $18 million for related projects, NASA said.

The funding was meted out in an open bidding process, according to NASA.

Bolden today moved to quell criticism of the White House plan to use contractors to build and own spacecraft that would carry U.S. and international astronauts.

"I will make it my job every day to make sure that everything is done efficiently and safely," he said. "Some have said this means putting astronauts in the care of untested providers. Not true. Remember that we already depend on commercial companies to launch weather, imaging and navigation satellites."

Bolden added that the new strategy leverages private investment, which reduces the burden on taxpayers, while lessening NASA's dependence on key partner Russia to ferry astronauts after NASA's space shuttle fleet is retired later this year.

"We are still the nation in the forefront [of space research and exploration]. We are still the nation that everyone looks to and with whom everyone wants to partner," he said. "I'm not trying to fool anybody that this is going to be easy. But I'm excited about the opportunity. This is not a NASA thing. This is a 'we thing' -- with NASA. commercial industry and the nation. These are exciting times."

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