NASA to provide $200M for space flights

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The commercial space race just got a boost – $200 million from NASA.

The space agency is offering the money to companies to flesh out or flight-test technology, an effort set to bolster plans for an outpost in orbit.

NASA already offered a $50 million commercial crew development program this year, awarded to Boeing, which is working on a seven-passenger capsule called the CST-100. Solicitations for round two were announced last month, and proposals are due by Dec. 13. NASA expects to select multiple teams by March 2011 for fixed-price contracts.

Current contractors in the commercial space arena also include Sierra Nevada Corp., which won $20 million to help develop its Dream Chaser spaceplane, a knockoff of NASA’s lifting body design.

Interested companies could be the Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, which plans to debut its Dragon capsule Nov. 18. If successful, its first flight to haul cargo to the International Space Station could come next year. With the addition of a launch abort system and other upgrades, Dragon, which flies on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, is intended to double as a vessel for crew members.

Virgin Galactic could also be part of the competition for round two commercial space flight dollars. The company hopes to begin suborbital flights in late 2011, having collected $50 million in deposits from more than 380 people for rides, which sell for $200,000 a seat.