The retirement of the Space Shuttle Program and lack of its readily available replacement stirred a whirl of criticism of Obama administration’s decision to shut down the program. The main question on everyone’s mind is “How will US astronauts get to Earth’s low orbit and mainly International Space Station?”
The only options seemed to be to rent the seats on Russian Soyuz spacecrafts that travel to ISS regularly.
However, NASA does have a few cards up its sleeve.
In late May 2011 NASA announced that it awarded $269,3 million to the following companies in order to accelerate human spaceflight capability and commercial crew transportation. The companies were selected for the second round of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev2).
Blue Origin is a privately-funded aerospace company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. The company was awarded $3.7 million in funding in 2009 by NASA via a Space Act Agreement under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program for development of concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations. The company’s innovative ‘pusher’ Launch Abort System (LAS) was one of the technologies that was of particular interest to NASA. To date abort systems have been of the tractor variety, which pulls a crew vehicle to safety in case of an emergency.
Initially focused on sub-orbital spaceflight, the company has built and flown a testbed of its New Shepard spacecraft design at their Culberson County, Texas facility. According to company statements, it initially planned on placing the New Shepard in commercial suborbital tourist service in 2010 with flights about once a week. However, the most recently publicized timetable states that Blue Origin will fly unmanned in 2011, and manned in 2012.
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is an electronic systems provider and systems integrator specializing in microsatellites, energy, telemedicine, nanotechnology, and commercial orbital transportation services. The company contracts with the US military, NASA and private spaceflight companies. The company is headquartered in Sparks, Nevada.
SNC employs over 2000 people. SNC has six different business areas, and 35 locations in 16 states along with numerous customer support sites located throughout the world.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is an American space transport company founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. It has developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets, both of which are built with a goal of being reusable launch vehicles. SpaceX is also developing the Dragon spacecraft to be carried to orbit by Falcon 9 launch vehicles. SpaceX designs, tests and fabricates the majority of their components in-house, including the Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco rocket engines. In December 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft (a Dragon).
Originally based in El Segundo, SpaceX now operates out of Hawthorne, California, USA.
The Boeing Company is an American multinational aerospace and defense corporation, founded in 1916 by William E. Boeing in Seattle, Washington. Boeing has expanded over the years, merging with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Boeing Corporate headquarters has been in Chicago, Illinois since 2001. Boeing is made up of multiple business units, which are Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA); Boeing Defense, Space & Security (BDS); Engineering, Operations & Technology; Boeing Capital; and Boeing Shared Services Group.
There is a viable program that does test flights in 2014 and will be ready to carry crew in 2015.