Beginning in 2017, U.S. astronauts will no longer be carried to space by Russian spacecraft. Instead, private spaceflight companies SpaceX and Boeing will transport them in return for contracts worth $6.8 billion.
“Today’s announcement sets the stage for what will be the most ambitious, exciting chapter in the history of NASA,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said at a press conference. “This is the fulfillment of the commitment President Obama made to return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil.”
Boeing will receive $4.2 billion in initial contracts, while SpaceX will receive $2.6 billion. The companies will be expected to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station and then return them to Earth. NASA currently pays Russia $70.7 million per astronaut seat — a deal threatened by a soured relationship between the two countries.
SpaceX will carry astronauts on its Dragon space capsule, which it already uses to deliver cargo to the ISS. Boeing will use the CST-100. Both companies will launch from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
NASA retired its shuttle program in 2011 and transferred cargo delivery responsibilities to private companies. The move was meant to free up NASA’s time to focus on space exploration. Bolden said the new space ferry contracts are just one stepping stone on NASA’s way to flying humans to Mars.