Fly me to the moon

For the first time, NASA has awarded contracts to private companies to fly humans into space.

For the first time, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has awarded contracts to private companies to fly humans into space — a move that will eventually lead the way to space missions to the moon and to Mars, reports Bloomberg.

Under the arrangement, Boeing Co. will take home as much as $US4.2 billion for its seven-passenger CST-100 capsule, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) will get up to $US2.6 billion for its Dragon V2 capsule, which also seats seven passengers.

After abandoning its space shuttle fleet in 2011, the US has exclusively relied on Russian rockets, at a cost of $US70 million a seat, to send its astronauts into orbit, an arrangement that is currently constrained by the tensions in Ukraine. Boeing's and SpaceX's crafts, which should fly their first human crews in 2017, will sit atop a Falcon 9 rocket, designed and operated by SpaceX.

"From day one, the Obama Administration made clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space," said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden in a NASA press release. "Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars."

Boeing has had a commercial partnership with NASA for almost a half-century, while SpaceX joined the agency only in recent years, effecting a number of cargo-only flights with its Falcon 9 rocket. Its reusable Dragon V2 Capsule has the capacity, like a helicopter, to land vertically anywhere on earth.

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, is also one of the founders of Tesla Motors Inc., which manufactures the popular battery-powered cars that are transforming the car industry. A science-fiction buff, Musk also seems determined to transform aerospace. The NASA decision, he wrote in an email, "is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species."