The United States will go from space hitch-hiker, dependent on Russia to visit the International Space Station and other points orbital, to the proud owner of not one but two viable space craft in 2017.
NASA, the American space agency, has awarded a $4.2 billion contract to Boeing and a $2.6 billion contract to SpaceX to build rockets and spacecraft capable of taking astronauts into orbit. A third company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, had also been a contender for the job with its space-shuttle-like Dreamchaser but it lagged behind the other two competitors.
It’s something of a surprise that two companies were chosen at all. While multiple contractors were always a possibility, the limited missions and budget for manned spaceflight made it likely that just one company would be chosen for the task. After certification, each company will provide at least two and as many as six trips to the ISS.
Boeing, which built the original space shuttle orbiter and has decades of experience as a government contractor, was seen as a clear leader. But SpaceX was able to force itself into the conversation by producing a cheaper rocket and potentially more advanced space capsule. Its brash tactics—including a lawsuit against the Air Force intended to force competition into national security satellite contracts—made clear from the get-go that it wouldn’t be shut out of business entirely.
But Boeing played political hardball as well, threatening to shutter its spacecraft program if it didn’t receive the government contract, raising a specter of lost jobs and industrial know-how that US politicians didn’t miss. But Boeing also relies on Russian engines for its rockets, which hurt its bid to be the sole provider of US space transport at a time when the key problem is dependence on Vladimir Putin’s autocracy.
SpaceX said its spacecraft efforts would be merely delayed, not scotched, without government funding. But the loss of public funding and manned missions would have been a major blow. The bulk of global spending on space still comes from governments, and participation in these endeavors will be key to both technological development and revenue. Budget pressures still threaten the program; NASA is engaged in a running battle against cutbacks.
Still, when SpaceX’s Dragon II and Boeing’s CST-100 pass extensive safety tests, it will be the first time that two privately designed and built spacecraft will be available to take on manned government space missions. That’s a giant leap, at least for someone.