The new space race (sort of): SpaceX vs Boeing

SpaceX and Boeing plan to build space "taxis" that can carry American astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017, and both companies appeared together at a NASA press conference Monday to unveil updates in the space agency's commercial crew carrier competition.

NASA has awarded Boeing $4.6 billion and SpaceX $2.6 billion to develop and operate the taxis, and thereby reduce U.S. dependence on Russia.

SpaceX Dragon attached to International Space Station
NASA

Currently, the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, charges NASA about $70 million a seat to send astronauts to the space station. With Boeing and/or SpaceX, the cost will be reduced to around $58 million a seat.

"I don't ever, ever want to write another check to Roscosmos," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Boeing is about to celebrate its first 100 years in business, and its commercial airplane segment brings in nearly $70 billion.

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"I believe firmly that when the company celebrates its second hundred years, there will be a division of Boeing that's building commercial space vehicles, that will be of that magnitude, of that size," said John Elbon, who heads up Boeing's space exploration division. Manufacture of his company's proposed space taxi, called the CST-100, will begin later this year. Boeing plans to have the first uncrewed test flight in April 2017, and the first crewed flight in July 2017.

"Never before in the history of human space flight has there been so much going on all at once," Elbon said.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell estimated the first crewed flight of her company's capsule—called the Dragon 2—could be sooner, by early 2017. SpaceX is working on a number of upgrades to ensure the Dragon "is as reliable as it could possibly be, and ultimately we plan for it to be the most reliable spaceship flying crew ever."

NASA's Bolden justified funding two separate development programs by pointing to what's happened on the cargo mission side. The agency offered contracts to both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to shuttle supplies to the space station, a decision which now looks wise after Orbital Sciences' rocket blew up on launch last fall.

"You've heard both of them say they think they'll be flying by 2017," Bolden said of SpaceX and Boeing's taxi efforts. "If we can make that date, I'm a happy camper."

Monday marked the first time NASA had updated the public on the space taxi competition since a third company, Sierra Nevada, challenged the selection of Boeing and SpaceX. The Government Accountability Office overruled the challenge.

NASA's Kathy Lueders said having an American space taxi will do more than save money, it will also double science and research capabilities aboard the space station. And even as the two companies are "frenemies" competing against each other, they are also collaborating.

Later this year, a new international docking adaptor will be flown and installed on the space station. The docking adaptor is being built by Boeing. It will be shipped aboard a SpaceX rocket.

"The world of low-earth orbit belongs to industry. It doesn't belong to government. It doesn't belong to NASA at all," said Bolden. By contracting out these missions to private enterprise for less money, NASA can focus more resources on getting to Mars with the Orion program and the new Space Launch System rocket.

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NASA has been criticized for continuing to fund the space station, but Bolden praised President Barack Obama's decision to keep the program going through 2024. He said it will allow private enterprise to continue developing low-earth orbit technology that can be used "as a springboard" to get deeper into space.

Sometime after 2024, NASA will dismantle the space station, and Bolden suggested that future similar research can be conducted through private ventures such as Bigelow Aerospace and its space habitats.

As for Mars, NASA currently has no plans to contract with SpaceX to get to the red planet, even though CEO Elon Musk has made it clear that Mars is his goal.

"I think it's going to take a village, frankly, to get to Mars," said Shotwell. "I'm sure it's going to be a collaborative effort."

Bolden seemed to agree. "Everyone wants to see competition, but going to Mars is hard. Let me say that one more time: Going to Mars is hard. I think everyone on this stage realizes nobody is going to do it by themselves."