The commercial successors to the Space Shuttle have been selected. NASA’s strategy is to encourage healthy competition. So in awarding $1.1 billion in contracts it has divided the money among three companies with three different technologies. They include:
SpaceX has received $400 million from NASA. It leads the other companies in terms of its development achievements and plans to launch a first human crewed flight in 2015 atop its own Falcon-9 launch vehicle. Dragon will seat seven passengers. It incorporates abort capability all the way to orbit, something the Shuttle never had. It also features a powered descent system for landing on the ground (see picture below). Of those receiving contracts from NASA, only SpaceX has actually flown.
Boeing received $460 million. Its capsule is also designed for a crew of seven and will be launched using the Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance. The capsule looks similar to the Apollo and uses some of its legacy and proven technology. It also incorporates some of the Orion capsule features, NASA’s own crewed capsule designed for future Deep Space missions. The CST-100 will also feature an abort system in the event of a problem at launch. First test flights are planned for 2016.
SNC also known as Sierra Nevada received $212.5 million for its mini-shuttle space plane called Dream Chaser. Dream Chaser was first conceived as a NASA mini-shuttle but the project was cancelled only to be revived by private enterprise. Launched from the top of an Atlas V rocket, Dream Chaser plans to make its first orbital flight in 2016. An approach and landing test is scheduled for late 2012. Dream Chaser also has the capability of carrying a crew of seven into orbit. Of the three commercial launchers only Dream Chaser will be capable of landing on a runway in similar fashion to the Space Shuttle.
Until these American companies have their spacecraft ready to go the United States will still contract Russia and its proven Soyuz technology to send its astronauts into orbit and rendezvous with the International Space Station.