NASA has awarded a set of contracts to commercial companies working on new propulsion technologies for future spacecraft.

The space agency granted up to $50 million each to five companies for research into novel engine system designs such as electric propulsion, new propellants made from non-toxic chemicals, and other areas.

The recipients of the funds include Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif.; ATK Mission Systems of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; Northrop Grumman Aerospace Corporation of Redondo Beach, Calif.; Orbital Technologies Corporation of Madison, Wisc.; and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne Inc. of Canoga Park, Calif.

NASA hopes the new space technologies will help the agency to "explore space as much as we can," said NASA spokeswoman Katherine K. Martin of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

The agency is looking to enable missions with higher performance, reduced cost, improved reliability and improved safety, she said.

NASA announced the new initiative amid several other contract award announcements, including five contracts worth up to $125 million each to companies working on Earth-based aviation technologies. These grants will be used to research low-noise propulsion, alternative fuels, hybrid engines and other technologies for aircraft.

The new contracts come at a time when NASA is planning to embrace novel technologies under the new plan outlined in President Obama's 2011 budget. The proposal calls for NASA to abandon the concrete plans it had for new spacecraft ? the Ares rockets and Orion crew capsules ? to focus on forward-looking technology and encourage private industry to develop human-rated spacecraft.