In a move that returns the U.S. to manned spaceflight, NASA has awarded Boeing and California-based SpaceX with contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion to launch astronauts into space.
The contracts mark a significant shift for the space agency that grounded the space shuttle and relies on Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Awarding the contracts -- one to an aerospace stalwart and another to an upstart -- also marked new realities of funding space missions: They must be affordable.
And it returns Southern California, once the epicenter for Apollo and space shuttle development, to the forefront of spaceflight.
The contracts landed by Hawthorne-based SpaceX and Chicago-based Boeing Co. are aimed at continuing the final development of spacecraft that will take astronauts to the space station.
Under the contracts, the companies will have a goal of performing a test flight to the space station with a NASA astronaut in 2017.
SpaceX, which will use the Dragon V2 capsule it unveiled in May, is getting a contract worth $2.6 billion, and Boeing, which will use the CST-100 capsule it has been developing, is getting a contract worth $4.2 billion, NASA said.
The contract amounts were based on the companies’ proposals, but both have the same requirements, the agency said.
Each contract covers development and certification efforts and a crewed demonstration flight, as well as special studies and a maximum of six missions, the agency said.
Since NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, it has been paying the Russian government about $70 million a seat to transport U.S. astronauts to the space station. That arrangement, which was always intended to be temporary, has become strained in recent months amid tensions between Russia and the West over the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.
“Today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. And having private companies handle transporting astronauts in low-Earth orbit, he said, “will allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission: sending humans to Mars.”
SpaceX, whose name is short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is helmed by entrepreneur Elon Musk. It already has a $1.6-billion contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the space station.
Boeing, which has thousands of employees in Southern California, has built nearly every manned spacecraft in U.S. history.
Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., which has been building a space plane that closely resembles a miniature space shuttle, had also been in the running for the NASA contracts awarded Tuesday.
Staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this report.