View Photo Gallery: The SpaceX Dragon capsule detached from the international space station May 31 morning and returned to Earth.

NASA has awarded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and United Launch Services multi-million dollar contracts.

The SpaceX contract — worth roughly $82 million, according to a Monday news release — is for the launch of the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Jason-3 spacecraft. The launch is scheduled to take place December 2014 from Complex 4 at Vendenberg Air Force Base in California. Jason-3 will be launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.0 rocket.

The contract includes additional services, such as payload processing, launch vehicle integration, and mission-unique launch site ground support as well as tracking, data and telemetry services. This is the first space science mission under the launch services program from Vandenberg for SpaceX. The company will continue the space cargo missions to the International Space Station under the existing $1.6 billion contract.

The Jason-3 mission, launched to monitor the Earth’s sea levels, is the result of an international partnership including NOAA and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. NASA and French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales are collaborating on the mission.

United Launch Services, based in Colorado, has received a significantly larger contract award of $412 million to launch the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) in October 2014 to measure Earth’s soil moisture and extend weather and climate prediction capabilities; Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) in July 2014 to paint the first complete picture of carbon dioxide sources and the “sinks” where the gas is stored outside of the atmosphere; and Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1) spacecraft in November 2016 to continue providing critical data for weather forecasting. The launches will all take place on the Delta II rockets also from Vendenberg.

SpaceX was also among the group of companies that bid on the $412 million contract.

The next big contract: commercial crew missions. “There’s going to be some decisions here this summer — maybe in August,” said Kennedy Space Center spokesperson George Diller. “It’s going to be two primary and a half an award for a third. I think that’s coming up in mid-to-late August. So, that’s on track. They’re very much competing for that.”

In a Juy 12 joint news release with NASA, SpaceX founder and design chief Elon Musk was quoted as saying SpaceX is “on target to fly people into space aboard Dragon by the middle of the decade.”

“From a NASA perspective,” said Diller, “we think that’s going to be about the middle of 2017.”

View Photo Gallery: As the federal government attempts to cut costs, including at NASA, corporations and private investors are venturing further into the realm of exploration innovation.

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