Big news at NASA: The agency has chosen Boeing and SpaceX to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. So reports my colleague Chris Davenport. This keeps competition in the “commercial crew” program. It’s also a major achievement for Elon Musk and the several thousand employees of SpaceX who have turned a start-up company into a major player in the space industry. Some lawmakers wanted NASA to go with a single company — and “Old Space” stalwart Boeing was always a front-runner — but the career folks at NASA who made this decision have opted for two providers, which gives them some flexibility if one of the companies has a major problem.
For several years now, NASA has had only one option for sending Americans into space — the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The Russians charge about $71 million per seat, and NASA has in a single year sent more than $400 million to Russia for these taxi rides. If the schedule doesn’t slip, and Boeing and SpaceX are successful, NASA should see its astronauts launched on U.S. soil with American rockets circa 2017/2018.
The end result of this contract will be a single mission for each company to demonstrate the capability of delivering astronauts to the ISS. An “operational” contract will be awarded down the road after that capability has been shown. [Correction: At the press conference later, NASA said the $6.8 billion in contracts — $4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX — will include 2 to 6 flights for each company after the first demonstration mission is completed.]
We don’t know yet how the money will be divided between the two companies, but I’m told one company will get more money than the other. It’s important to note that Boeing charges more than SpaceX. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Boeing will get “the bulk” of the money, but that may simply reflect Boeing’s pricing. If so, it would be wrong to suggest that Boeing somehow “won” the competition.
Official announcement will be at 4 p.m. We await word from the companies involved.
Left out in the cold, apparently, is Sierra Nevada Corp., which had developed a winged space plane that looked like a miniature space shuttle. Sierra Nevada had some troubles with its Dream Chaser vehicle (it did a face-plant, sort of, during a test flight a while back), and NASA may have felt that Boeing and SpaceX would be ready to go sooner — and time is money, given what we’re paying the Russians.If the early reports hold up, and it’s Boeing and SpaceX, that means NASA has decided to go all-capsule — foregoing the winged orbiter model which could be useful for certain kinds of missions and cargo returns to Earth.
There’s another development, first reported by the Journal, that we’ve now confirmed via an official with knowledge of the situation: Blue Origin, the company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos (who founded Amazon.com and owns The Washington Post), will provide rocket engines to the Atlas 5 rocket owned by United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed partnership that has a virtual monopoly on national security launches.
This is probably the biggest surprise of the day. Blue Origin has never launched anything into orbit, and has kept a low profile for years now. Space blogger Jeff Foust has reported that Bezos has sunk half a billion dollars in Blue Origin. This deal is a blockbuster partnership between Old Space and New Space and may force us to retire that dichotomy. [More here at Spacenews.com.]
The Atlas 5 currently uses an RD-180 Russian-made engine. With U.S.-Russia relations at a low point, Russian officials have made noises about cutting off the supply of such engines. SpaceX, which is in a protracted battle with ULA to gain access to the national security launch market, has pointed out that Boeing’s crew capsule is launched on an Atlas 5 rocket. So it appears that Boeing and ULA see Blue Origin as the solution to an embarrassing problem. If Blue Origin’s engine can replace the RD-180 on the Atlas 5, that may have made Boeing’s bid more attractive to NASA.
No comment yet from Blue Origin, which is famously tight-lipped about its plans. [Update: But Bezos is supposed to appear tomorrow at a press conference at the National Press Club!]
[Update: I looked up the notes from a phone interview with Elon Musk last fall. SpaceX and Blue Origin were having a spat about the use of a former shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, so I asked him about Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos.
“He doesn’t want people to think he’s getting distracted from Amazon. Every time I talk to Jeff I tell him to spend more time on Blue Origin,” Musk said. “Advancing space flight is more important.”
Musk also reiterated his belief that becoming “multiplanetary” is essential to our survival, not to mention exciting:
“It’s vital to the future of humanity. We’re either going to be on Earth forever until some extinction event claims us, or we’re going to be a multiplanet species, out there exploring the stars….I think it will be a much more exciting and vibrant future, instead of being stuck on Earth forever.”]
[Less than a decade ago, Elon Musk hadn’t managed to launch anything yet. Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote in 2005:
One day recently a young man named Elon Musk came to Howard County to talk at a space symposium about his plans to help humankind become a spacefaring civilization. Musk is 33 years old, South African, and an Internet tycoon, having co-founded PayPal, which he sold recently for a handsome sum. He now runs a small rocketry company called SpaceX, which already has four contracts to launch payloads into orbit. He is hoping for some NASA business at some point.
He said that if he tries three times and the rockets blow up every time or fail to reach orbit, he’ll quit. He’s spending a lot of money. “I was trying to find the fastest way to turn a large fortune into a small one,” he said. “I thought the rocket business was perfect.”
We spoke in a hotel lobby and discussed the fate of civilization. Musk would like to go to Mars. He thinks life on Mars would be like Canada in winter. He said it’d be a bit like living in the hotel lobby. He gestures to the large glass windows. You’d be indoors, he said, but you could look outside. He paused, and then said that, of course, there wouldn’t be plants and trees out there.
“Do you want us to be forever Earthbound, or do you want us to be a civilization that explores the stars?” he asked. The latter, he said, “is an immensely more exciting future.”
Musk said he’s not giving up on Earth. He does think there are threats to human civilization, both self-made (nuclear war, environmental disaster) and natural (asteroids, killer microbes, etc.). But the bottom line is that life as a spacefaring civilization would be a good thing. It’s a fundamental value, he said. “Do you think it is important to believe in God?” Space is almost a faith, a religion.