Boeing Co. (BA) and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. won $900 million in contracts from NASA to develop spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts, the agency said.
Boeing received a $460 million award, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a press release today. SpaceX, led by billionaire Elon Musk, got a $440 million agreement, and Sierra Nevada Corp. won $213 million.
Two of the companies will probably be picked to build the vehicles to transport crew to the International Space Station, said John Logsdon, a professor and founder of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.
"This is an important step," he said in an interview. "These are the substitutes for the shuttle."
Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), based in Arlington, Virginia, was among the companies that lost bids.
The U.S. retired its shuttle fleet last year and relies on countries such as Russia to ferry astronauts and supplies to the space station. The administration wants the private sector to take over those jobs so NASA can focus on missions to asteroids and Mars.
NASA pays about $63 million per seat on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
"We're in this kind of embarrassing situation of depending on Russia for crew transportation," Logsdon said. "These systems are the way out of that."
The latest funding is the third and final phase of a program to design and develop the privately operated vehicles.
Excluding the funding announced today, NASA has awarded $365 million since 2009 for work under its commercial crew program.
"We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said during a press briefing at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Boeing, based in Chicago, has about 250 employees working on the program in Texas, California and Florida, mostly in Houston, Paula Korn, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. With the new funding, Boeing sees that figure increasing to about 350 in 2012 and to about 450 in 2013, she said.
After the system shifts from design to production in 2015 or 2016, the company expects to have about 550 employees at Kennedy Space Center, Korn said.
Both Boeing and Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX are developing bullet-shaped capsules that launch atop rockets and are capable of carrying seven astronauts. Sierra Nevada, based in Sparks, Nevada, is building a shuttle-like vehicle that is lifted by a rocket and lands like an airplane.
SpaceX expects its first manned flight in 2015, two years before NASA plans to begin regular manned missions to the space station using commercial craft.
The company on May 25 became the first to dock a private unmanned ship with the station. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB), based in Dulles, Virginia, have won $3.5 billion in NASA awards as part of a separate program to deliver cargo to the station.
Seven companies competed for the latest round of funding, William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's human exploration and operations directorate, said today during a separate press conference. The four losing bidders were Alliant, Space Operations Inc., American Aerospace Corp. and Space Design Inc., he said.
"The stronger proposals were really the three we talked about," he said.
George Torres, a spokesman for Alliant Techsystems, said in an e-mail that the company was "disappointed" it wasn't selected. It teamed up with Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) and a unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. to develop a rocket called Liberty to compete for U.S. business.
Torres said "it's too early" to say whether the company will seek to challenge the decision..