For years, Elon Musk has been saying that three years after the government puts up the cash, he could have a new ride for astronauts ready to fly.
On Monday, NASA decided to take him up on the pledge. Musk's Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, will share $269 million with fellow aspiring rocketeers Sierra Nevada Corp and Blue Origin, along with an established aerospace giant, Boeing, to develop human orbital space transportation services.
Boeing and SpaceX will use NASA's investment to further designs for capsules — the seven-seaters CST-100 for Boeing and Dragon for SpaceX — while Sierra Nevada pursues a winged craft known as Dream Chaser.
Less is known about Blue Origin's vehicle. The Washington-based firm, founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, is preparing to launch a reusable suborbital ship known as New Shepard. If Bezos' orbital ambitions follow the path laid out by New Shepard, he likely will be pursuing a so-far mythical machine that can take off and climb into space with only its own engines, a feat known as single-stage to orbit.
All the companies — NASA calls them "partners" not "contractors" — are plowing new ground of a non-technical nature. Unlike traditional ways of doing business, the companies will be paid only if and when they achieve set milestones. If they don't hit the marks, they don't get the money. The model so far has proven its worth.
Under a similar program to develop cargo ships, Musk flew a demo mission for NASA last year. The government's contribution came to about $300 million — about one-quarter of what it spends on a single shuttle flight.
Image: Artist's rendering of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, with seating for six. Credit: SpaceX