Gallery: Boeing Joins Start-up Companies in the Private Space Race

By Andrew Moseman | September 20, 2010 9:33 am

[zenphotopress album=175 sort=sort_order number=6]

NASA this week made what may be one of the last decisions it will ever make about the space shuttle program, selecting a backup crew in case it needs to make a rescue mission for the last scheduled shuttle flight in February. While the space shuttle’s close draws nearer, the race to replace it gets stronger.

Now Boeing has entered the fray, unveiling the design of a spacecraft it will build for the task of taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The ship could be ready by 2015. Boeing joins both the companies trying to build crafts to meet NASA’s needs and those of space tourists who dream of leaving the planet.

Here’s a (non-comprehensive) refresher:

1. Boeing

Boeing’s ship would be called the Crew Space Transportation-100, and would carry seven passengers. Like all the private space competing to carry NASA astronauts, Boeing is competing for NASA money. It won $18 million this February for the project, making it one of five companies to get seed money at that time.

Its venture is also a collaboration with Space Adventures, a space tourism firm. If NASA chooses to send up only four astronauts at a time, that leaves three empty seats.

If NASA chooses Boeing’s spaceship for the job, Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures will sell the open seats when they are available. Space Adventures has organized eight trips to the space station for seven space enthusiasts on a three-person Soyuz rocket owned by the Russian government. [Los Angeles Times]

2. Sierra Nevada

DISCOVER’s September cover story followed the dreamers at Sierra Nevada who are behind the Dream Chaser space vehicle. Their design is actually taken from an experimental one called the HL-20, which NASA investigated as a possible space shuttle replacement or space station rescue vehicle before tabling the idea. The Dream Chaser relies on another piece of NASA tech to get it into orbit: the proven Atlas V rocket.

Sierra Nevada received $20 million from NASA this year to develop the reusable craft.

3. SpaceX

Elon Musk’s company celebrated a major success this summer when its Falcon 9 heavy-lift rocket, carrying a dummy version of the Dragon crew vehicle, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, separated successfully, and entered Earth orbit.

The company is now preparing for a second Falcon 9 launch, scheduled to blast off in late October. This time, though, SpaceX will be sending up a real Dragon capsule to orbit the Earth.

4. Blue Origin

Another winner of NASA money this spring, the company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos is notoriously secretive about it plans to go to suborbital space. In December, however, it did announce the science experiments that would fly aboard its rocket, the New Shepard. Exactly when those flights will take place over the next couple years remains shrouded in secrecy, though.

5. Orbital Sciences

When NASA first awarded major contracts in its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Project, they were to SpaceX and Rocketplane. Rocketplane went bankrupt, and the money went to Orbital Sciences in 2008, which is in the midst of developing its Taurus II rocket and Cygnus crew vehicle. Orbital hopes to make its initial launch with the two-stage rocket next year.

6. Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson’s company isn’t about sending astronauts to the ISS for a mission to benefit science. Virgin Galactic is about sending you into suborbital space for a thrill ride, provided you can fork over $200,000.

So if you have 800,000 quarters burning a hole in your pocket, when will you get to go?

That’s still an open question, but flight tests of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its White Knight Two mothership have been under way for some time already. On Monday, White Knight Two took to the air for the first time since last month’s landing-gear glitch. The next big step will be to drop SpaceShipTwo into the air for its first glide. The best guess is that Virgin Galactic’s first passengers will get on board in New Mexico in 2012 or so. [MSNBC]

Related Content:
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80beats: Obama’s NASA Budget: So Long, Moon Missions; Hello, Private Spaceflight
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