NASA takes a giant leap forward with Boeing deal

When American astronauts need a lift to the International Space Station orbiting Earth, they’ve had only one option since the space shuttle program was discontinued in 2011: Russia.

Hitching rides on Soyuz missions comes at a high price: $70 million per seat.

Given the United States’ fast-decaying relations with Russia, finding a different “space pool” has become an urgent necessity. As recently as April, a prominent Russian official angry about sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis tweeted that the U.S. should consider sending astronauts to space “with a trampoline.”

That thinly veiled threat to cut off U.S. access to the ISS gives even greater impetus to NASA’s efforts to fund an alternative ride. On Tuesday, the space agency announced contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to fund development of commercially owned and operated capsules – “space taxis” – that could ferry astronauts and payloads to and from the ISS as soon as 2017. The capsules could also serve as “lifeboats” for the ISS crew in the event of an emergency.

The contract is especially lucrative for Boeing: $4.2 billion to build, test and fly a CST-100 craft. It would launch aboard Atlas 5 rockets built by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership. It’s a natural fit for the aerospace giant, which was the primary contractor for the ISS and had key roles in the Apollo and shuttle programs.

SpaceX, the California-based company run by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, won a smaller contract, $2.6 billion, to upgrade its cargo-carrying Dragon capsule for space travel. It would launch on the Falcon 9 rocket SpaceX has been using since 2012 to ferry freight to the ISS for NASA.

Both capsules would be capable of carrying up to seven astronauts – or paying passengers – and would splash down at sea for re-entry. SpaceX is working on technology that would allow a land-based touchdown instead.

Awarding the contracts for developing the capsules is just one small step toward shrugging off dependence on Russia. The giant leap is getting Congress to adequately fund the payouts.

The public-private partnership is worth the investment. Turning the space taxi function over to private industry would allow NASA to focus on sending humans to Mars.

At the very least, it’s a matter of national pride. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden so eloquently put it, “The greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on any other nation to get to space.”