In a vote of confidence for the fledgling commercial space industry, NASA has awarded contracts that could total $3.5 billion to two companies that plan to build rockets and ferry supplies to the International Space Station. The companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, could begin launches as soon as 2010 to help fill the gap between the space shuttle‘s expected retirement and the introduction of NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Ares I. The companies beat out traditional NASA contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to snag the contracts.
Experts say that giving a contract to the young company SpaceX is a particularly bold bet. SpaceX, the plan’s linchpin because it is intended to begin the service, carries a relatively short pedigree as a government contractor and can point to only one successful launch, after three failures, of a smaller version of its Falcon rocket intended to supply the space station. Orbital Sciences is an established, midsize aerospace contractor but lacks a proven track record for the revamped version of the Taurus rocket it will use to supply the station [The Wall Street Journal, subscription required].