Summary:

SpaceX is one of 3 rivals competing — with NASA’s help — to power the next U.S. manned space launch. Boeing, Sierra Nevada (no not that Sierra Nevada) and SpaceX will benefit from NASA expertise — and millions of dollars of its dough — under the 21-month contract.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX snagged a $440 million NASA contract to design a manned spacecraft but the company wasn’t the only winner. Aeronautics heavyweight Boeing also got $440 million and Sierra Nevada received $212.5 million to build their own entries for the space launch sweepstakes known as NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Program (CCiCap).

The goal is to launch manned spacecraft from U.S. soil in the next five years, according to NASA.

SpaceX is building both the spacecraft and the rockets to propel it, and will compete with Sierra Nevada and Boeing, which will design and construct their own spacecraft but rely on Atlas rockets from United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX Dragon crew in evaluation test.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser Space System was awarded $212.5 million as part of the same NASA Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Program.  The 21-month contract will begin in August 2012.

In May, SpaceX became the first private company to launch and recover an unmanned spacecraft. Musk, who co-founded PayPal and Tesla Motors, founded SpaceX in 2002.

With this contract, NASA, which no longer has the funds to build and field spacecraft and retired the space shuttle program after 30 years, provides seed money and expert help to these contractors. “We support them in developing these systems and to come up with some sort of design that will get people to and from the space station,” a NASA spokesman told me.

Other companies are working on a range of ancillary projects, including the design and construction of space hotels, etc., he said. All of this work — much of it now privately funded — could open up the realm of space travel to mere mortals.

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