By Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
WASHINGTON A half century ago the Mercury Seven embodied America’s space future. Now it’s the merchant seven — space companies for hire.
Mimicking a scene 51 years ago when the Mercury astronauts were revealed, NASA‘s boss beamed Tuesday as he introduced the “faces of a new frontier:” representatives of the seven companies that NASA is funding to develop future private spacecraft.
And more money is coming. In President Barack Obama‘s proposed budget, he not only killed his predecessor’s $100 billion moon program, he proposed spending $6 billion over five years to develop private space taxis. NASA would then pay them to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Some of the players include companies run by Internet pioneers Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Elon Musk of PayPal. Bezos runs Blue Origin, a Kent, Wash., company that until Tuesday had only talked about going into suborbital space; now it will compete to go into orbit as a space taxi. Musk runs SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif. and already has built a rocket called Falcon and a capsule called Dragon.
NASA on Tuesday detailed $50 million worth of seed grants for development of a space taxi to Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Paragon, United Launch and Blue Origin.
A year ago, the space agency gave $3.5 billion in contracts to Orbital Science and SpaceX for 20 commercial cargo resupply flights to the space station. Both are likely to develop crew taxis too, with Musk of SpaceX saying he could fly astronauts within three years of a final contract. And he said he could do it for $20 million a head, less than half the price NASA pays Russia for astronauts flying on that country’s Soyuz capsule.