NASA to Spend $50 Million to Spur Commercial Spacecraft
SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical atop its Space Launch Complex 40 pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Jan. 2009.
Credit: SpaceX

NASA plans to spend up to $50 million in federal stimulus money to help foster development of commercial spacecraft for launching astronauts and cargo into space.

Under the plan, NASA will competitively award Space Act agreements to promising private companies to boost their commercial spacecraft work. NASA said last week that it intended to issue a formal Commercial Crew and Cargo Program solicitation. Proposals will be due 45 days later with multiple awards expected in November.

In mid-July, Congress signed off on the agency's plan to spend $1 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

Of the $400 million in stimulus money set aside for NASA's manned space exploration programs, $90 million will be spent on crew and cargo efforts, including $50 million to be spent on multiple, competitively awarded Space Act Agreements intended to foster private sector growth in developing human spaceflight capabilities.

"These efforts are intended to foster entrepreneurial activity leading to job growth in engineering, analysis, design, and research, and to economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created," stated an Aug. 4 announcement issued by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA waited months for lawmakers to approve the spending plan, which was submitted to Congress in April. Congressional and industry sources said the funds were held up by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who wanted all $400 million for exploration to be spent on Constellation, NASA's effort to replace the space shuttle with new systems. These include the Ares I and Ares V rockets under development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

NASA has already pledged to buy commercial cargo launch services for supply runs to the International Space Station from two private firms: Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of California, and the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, Corp.

The initial contract awards call for SpaceX to provide 12 flights for $1.6 billion, while Orbital Sciences would provide eight flights for $1.9 billion. The contracts require the two companies to launch a total of 20 tons of cargo each to the station through 2016.