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Artist impression of a crewed version of SpaceX s Dragon berthed with the ISS. Credit: SpaceX Artist impression of a crewed version of SpaceX's Dragon berthed with the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

NASA awards commercial crew certification contracts

Sen— NASA has announced certification contracts under its commercial crew program under which US companies are building spaceships to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

The contracts have been awarded to the three companies working under NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program - Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation. The contracts - totalling just less than $30million - are known as the certification products contracts (CPC). What this means is the companies will now begin the process of ensuring integrated crew transportation systems meet with the space agency's safety requirements and standards to launch Americans to the ISS. This will eventually lead to the NASA ending its reliance on Russia to get crew to space. This is the first stage of the process of using commercial space companies to take NASA astronauts back into space.

Sierra Nevada Corp (SNC) Dream Chaser spacecraft attached to the International Space Station. Credit: SNC

Illustration of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser docked with the ISS. Credit: SNC

"These contracts represent important progress in restoring human spaceflight capabilities to the United States," said Phil McAlister, who is the director of the Commercial Spaceflight Development Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This is the program's first major, fixed-price contract. The effort will bring space system designs within NASA's safety and performance expectations for future flights to the International Space Station" adds Ed Mango, Commercial Crew Program (CCP) manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The aim for NASA, along with its industry partners, is to launch astronauts within the next five years. 

The CPC contacts will run from the start of next year until the end of May 2014. With companies working with NASA's CCP to develop the requirements needed by the space agency to send humans back to space safely. This includes looking at everything from the spacecraft and launch vehicle, to ground and mission operations. From this work, NASA hopes to develop engineering standards in order to move on to once again launch astronauts to the ISS.

After the completion of this first stage, a second phase is expected to begin in 2014, with separate contacts, allowing for full and open competition. During this stage there will be final development and test to allow a crewed demonstration flight to the space station.

Boeing

Illustration of Boeing's CST-100 approaching the ISS. Credit: The Boeing Company

Alongside these plans, NASA is still looking deeper into space, developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS). More powerful than the Saturn V - which took humans to the Moon - the SLS will be the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, designed to once again take humans beyond Earth's orbit. The first test flight of the SLS is scheduled for 2017, with an unmanned Orion spacecraft.

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