For the first time in American history, commercial spaceflight companies will send astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX and Boeing have been awarded NASA contracts to pursue the technology necessary for sustaining human life in space. Pending certification by NASA, American astronauts will again travel to and from the space station via commercial American rockets, which hasn't been possible since the federal shuttle program shut down in 2011.
Over the past few years, NASA has had to pay exorbitant prices to seat their astronauts on Russian rockets. The SpaceX and Boeing contracts will allow the U.S. to end its sole reliance on Russia by 2017, according to a NASA news release. Tasking commercial companies with sending astronauts to the International Space Station will hopefully free up NASA to focus on outer space missions, such as eventually landing people on Mars.
Boeing received a fixed-price contract of $4.2 billion and SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion. Each company will have to test at least one crewed flight comprised of their own people plus one NASA astronaut to oversee the launch.
The folks at SpaceX and Boeing are going to have a hell of a time drawing straws to go to space. On the one hand, who wouldn't want float around and nibble on water droplets suspended in zero gravity? On the other, a SpaceX rocket exploded in McGregor, Texas, not too long ago during a test flight. Hopefully they get that sorted out before they try to fly people anywhere.