We'd heard that the budget trims would force NASA to include commercial space companies in its operating budget, and the agency has wasted no time at all: It's announced a $50 million investment to boost commercial astronaut flights.
"The president has asked NASA to partner with the aerospace industry in a fundamentally new way, making commercially provided services the primary mode of astronaut transportation to the International Space Station," said the agency's administrator Charles Bolden, in a NASA press release.
He continues by saying that, "We are pleased to be able to quickly move forward to advance this exciting plan for NASA." And that's pretty revealing—it suggests NASA's been expecting things to play out like this for some time.
The money is coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and it's being shared out like this:
- Sierra Nevada Corporation gets $20 million
- The Boeing Company gets $18 million
- United Launch Alliance gets $6.7 million
- Blue Origin gets $3.7 million
- Paragon Space Development Corporation gets $1.4 million
According to NASA the funds are for "the development of crew concepts and technology demonstrations and investigations for future commercial support of human spaceflight" under Space Act Agreements, and all the recipients plan to leverage this tax money with other investments. And they have to get moving swiftly—the first performance milestones are in February.
Boeing is an obvious name among this list, and most intriguingly it was partly behind a formal protest that briefly halted previous efforts on the commercial spaceflight front when NASA first selected SpaceX and Orbital Science Corp. for the post-Space Shuttle astronaut-ferrying rocket program. Another complainant there, Lockheed Martin Corporation, is also involved in the new NASA investments, as it has a hand in the United Launch Alliance joint venture, which has been providing space launch support services to NASA and the DoD for years.
The upshot of the presidential re-direction of NASA would seem to be pretty much as expected then—the usual big-name aerospace and defense suspects are getting a bigger slice of space cash, but have to rub shoulders with some novel new players. Now we'll really see how nimble those space stalwarts are compared to the upstarts. In this case it's Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin company, busy building its sub-orbital New Shepard private spacecraft out in Texas, and the Sierra Nevada folks who already support military and NASA space tech as well as exploring new developments of their own Dream Chaser private space plane.
Suddenly the future of human spaceflight doesn't look quite as dim as it could have done, don't you think?