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20 Apr 2011

Commercial space travel came a step closer today after Nasa handed out nearly £170million ($270million) to companies hoping to build spaceships that are up to the job.

Astronauts will be able to fly to the International Space Station in privately chartered craft as the space agency sets about retiring its shuttles.

Nasa has offered the cash to four firms to help them in the final stages of design plans for orbiting vehicles.

Boeing will get the biggest share - £56millioin ($92.3million) - while the privately held Sierra Nevada will receive £49million ($80million).

Space Exploration Technologies - which recently unveiled the most powerful rocket ever built - is in line for £46million ($75million) and Blue Origin was given a contract worth £13.5million ($22million).

The cash will be used so that the companies can offer 'taxi' services into space.

Earlier this year, after 39 successfully completed missions, Space Shuttle Discovery was dismantled bit-by-bit to be put in a museum.

Later this month, Discovery's sister ship Endeavour will make its final trip into space, followed by Atlantis in June, before they too face decommissioning.

Philip McAlister, acting director of commercial spaceflight development at Nasa, said: 'We are pleased to be completing a significant milestone today in the development of US commercial crew systems, and we are very excited about the future.

'We hope someday soon we will see commercial human spaceflight to low-Earth orbit as a robust, vibrant, profit-making, commercial enterprise with many providers and a wide range of public and private users.'

Boeing is the longest established company and will receive its portion of the award dependent on whether it meets Nasa-set targets.

One of their capsules, the CST-100, which is still in the design stages, could transport up to seven astronauts to the space station, according to the BBC.

Sierra Nevada, which has already received lots of financial support from the agency, is in line to get its funding ofr the 'Dream Chaser' - a shuttle-like vehicle that would launch on top of a rocket.

Blue Origin, which was set up by the founder of, Jef Bezos, hopes to get its portion of the cash of a cone-shaped crew vehicle.

Mr McAlister continued: 'Given enough time and money I am confident that multiple U.S. companies could develop safe, reliable and cost effective commercial crew transportation systems.

'And it is my sincere hope that the companies not selected for award today will continue maturing their systems and making progress on their designs so that they can potentially be available at some point in the future for purchase by Nasa and other customers.'

Congress is still debating how ready it thinks the private sector is to provide safe space travel and whether it will deliver significant savings.

John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said: 'Leveraging private investment is the only way Nasa can make its dollars go farther in these times of belt tightening.

'And by investing in commercial spaceflight rather than continuing to send billions of dollars to Russia, Nasa's commercial crew programme is creating American jobs instead of sending them abroad.'


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