WASHINGTON — NASA is gambling up to $3.5-billion on two up-and-coming rocket companies in the hopes they can provide the international space station with food and supplies after the space shuttle's planned retirement in 2010.
The deals with Orbital Sciences of Virginia and SpaceX of California, announced Tuesday, also could usher in a new age for the space industry. For the first time, NASA is asking aerospace companies to assume almost total control of a human spaceflight mission, rather than simply use them as contractors.
"This is a pretty monumental thing for us. It's the contracts we need to keep space station flying," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator.
Neither company would ferry astronauts to the station, but each would be responsible for restocking the space station with experiments and provisions. Orbital Sciences would get up to $1.9-billion for eight flights, starting in 2011. SpaceX would get up to $1.6-billion for 12 flights starting in 2010.
"This is the first time that NASA has ever bought a commercial service as a substantial element of a human spaceflight program," said James Muncy, a space policy consultant based out of Virginia.
Getting the contracts was coup for the two. Each had to compete with a third competitor, PlanetSpace, a conglomerate of major aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.