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NASA hands out $millions to wannabe spaceship builders

Outsourced space podules and minishuttle score moolah

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

NASA has stuck its hands far into its pockets of the third development round of the Commercial Crew programme, giving hundreds of millions to SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The funding will help put the firms (further) ahead of their competitors in the race for manned craft jollies and cheap science expeditions in space.

SpaceX was an obvious choice for its $440m award, having already successfully berthed a cargoship, the Dragon, with the International Space Station.

Elon Musk's space firm will also pocket a hefty wedge of NASA's cash when it takes over cargo deliveries to the ISS later this year under a $1.6bn resupply contract.

The company has already started work adapting the Dragon to carry 'nauts, with NASA handing over $75m for that last year, and 2015 has been bandied about as the likely first launch date for the manned version, nicknamed the Dragonrider.

Boeing nabbed a similar slice of the space agency pie, taking $460m towards its CST-100 spaceships, which have had some tests but no big milestones yet.

Sierra Nevada took a smaller share, with $212.5m going towards its Dream Chaser orbital crew vehicle, the only winged offering ampng the CCDev contenders. The craft has had a first captive carry flight already and has an approach and landing test scheduled for later this year.

Although it's not as aspirational to hand out money to companies to achieve the next wave of manned missions, it does seem to be paying off for NASA. While the agency works on its own Orion deep space capsule, and works to convince itself it can afford its Space Launch System mega-rocket, bread-and-butter operations with the space station will be carried out far more cheaply by subcontractors. ®

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