NASA has awarded seed money to four companies actively working on spaceships designed to launch astronauts — whether they are NASA astronauts or tourists who want to see Earth from above. Here's a look at the four, plus NASA's plans for a deep space exploration vehicle:
Blue Origin (blueorigin.com): Founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, the company has built a prototype spacecraft named Goddard, a rounded cone shape with four stubby legs. It took off vertically, rose 285 feet and descended successfully in a 2006 test. The company declines to grant interviews but says on its website that "Our first objective is developing New Shepard, a vertical take-off, vertical-landing vehicle designed to take a small number of astronauts on a sub-orbital journey into space."
It was awarded a $22-million NASA contract this year and has a Washington state manufacturing site and a Texas launch complex.
Boeing (boeing.com; search for "CST-100"): Boeing is an old standard in the aviation and space fields — doing everything from building 747s to serving as prime contractor on the International Space Station. For this spacecraft, Boeing says it is designing a safe and reliable capsule using proven technology.
The Boeing capsule is called the CST-100 and could hold up to seven people, or fewer if it is carrying a load of cargo. It would fly "autonomously," guided by computers, but a human pilot could take control if needed. It could be ready to fly in 2015.
It would launch from Florida, but a manufacturing site has not been chosen. The company was awarded a $92.3-million contract earlier this year.
Sierra Nevada (sncorp.com): This company is building a craft called a Dream Chaser that looks like a smaller shuttle, which would launch atop a rocket and glide back to Earth.
The company has based it on a NASA design that never was built. It's the only winged craft among the four commercial designs NASA is financing for possible human space flight. It could hold up to seven people.
It is under construction in Colorado but would launch from Florida. The company plans an unmanned test flight next year, with a manned orbital flight "as early as 2014" and possible trips to the International Space Station in 2015.
Sierra Nevada, an established technology and space company based in Colorado, was awarded an $80-million NASA contract this year.
SpaceX (spacex.com): This company was founded by Elon Musk, who helped revolutionize online shopping through the company PayPal. SpaceX aims to revolutionize the business of space launches, by using more efficient and cost-effective methods.
SpaceX has done something no other company has done: launched its own "Dragon" spacecraft with a privately built rocket, and the capsule orbited Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Previously, only governments had retrieved objects they sent into orbit.
SpaceX has a NASA contract to use the Dragon capsule to deliver cargo to the space station, in unmanned flights. Last year it also received a $75-million NASA contract to further develop the spacecraft for astronauts.
The company has a Florida presence. Its Falcon 9 rocket is sitting in a hangar at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, waiting for another test launch with the Dragon capsule. It has a launch center nearby.
NASA (www.nasa.gov): It is developing a rocket dubbed the "heavy lifter" capable of taking astronauts to an asteroid or even to Mars, journeys that could take as long as six months or three years, respectively.
NASA also is developing a space capsule. The goal of this rocket and capsule is to explore deep space — a markedly different goal than the space shuttle, which was never designed to escape Earth's orbit.
This system will take years to develop.