Today NASA announced that it has reduced the number of companies competing to produce the first privately built and operated manned spacecraft, to three. The current competitors for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative are now Sierra Nevada Corporation (which will receive a development contract of US$212.5 million), Space Exploration Technologies (aka SpaceX, receiving $440 million) and the Boeing Company (getting $460 million). This is the third round of initiatives designed to promote the development of manned private spacecraft that will be available to the US government to fly crews to the International Space Station (ISS), as well as being available to private customers.

The CCiCap, part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), now moves on to the next phase in the initiative that will see the companies perform tests and develop their designs to operational levels by May 31, 2014. Meanwhile, NASA will continue developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS) for heavy lift and deep space operations.

The competitors

The most easily identifiable of the the three competing designs is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser Space System. Based on an abandoned NASA project, it’s the only lifting body in the competition. It resembles a trimmed-down Space Shuttle and is intended to be lifted into orbit atop a conventional booster and then return as a glider. It carries up to seven passengers.

So far, it has achieved 19 development milestones including its first captive carry flight. The new contact will be used to fund an Approach and Landing Test scheduled for later this year. Sierra Nevada hopes that the Dream Chaser will be operation by 2016.

Built by the most seasoned competitor, the Boeing Commercial Crew Transportation System (CST-100) draws on Boeing’s fifty-plus years of manned spacecraft experience.

It’s also a seven-person ship and shows the legacy of Boeing’s earlier work on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, with its capsule shape looking like an oversized Apollo Command Module. Boeing has already completed testing on the CST-100’s engine, abort systems, and attitude and landing control systems. It’s preparing now for the craft’s first flight on an Atlas V rocket as early as 2016.

Finally, there is the Dragon from SpaceX. This is the only competing craft to have already flown, with a successful unmanned mission delivering cargo to the ISS. Again, a seven-person design, the Dragon spearheads SpaceX’s new open-ended approach aimed at a reusable manned spacecraft where both craft and booster can make a powered landing for recovery.

Despite having flown, Dragon is still undergoing tests in order to achieve a manned rating. The current program includes testing of its advanced launch escape system powered by integrated SuperDraco engines, an in-flight abort test at the moment of maximum aerodynamic drag, as well as tests of the propulsive landing system, life-support systems and a new cockpit design complete with advanced human interfaces. It will then go on to safety and mission-assurance analyses.

SpaceX expects to undertake the Dragon’s first manned flight by 2015. The company released the video below earlier today, to announce NASA's decision.

Sources: NASA, Sierra Nevada Corporation, The Boeing Company, SpaceX