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Images: SpaceX, Rocketplane win NASA support

NASA steps toward handing the future of space flight to the private sector by funding development of two launch systems.
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SpaceX capsule

NASA tries to get the private section into the rocket-launching business by awarding a total of about $500 million to two companies to develop low-cost flights to the International Space Station.

Under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler will only be paid after the companies reach specified goals along the way. The first stage of the program involves sending cargo to the International Space Station. The second stage requires sending and returning crews.

Right is Dragon, the capsule that SpaceX plans to develop.

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K-1 rocket

Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler plans to launch its demonstration flight, to and from the International Space Station, in 2008. It stands to earn $207 million from the NASA grant.

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Falcon

California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) plans to launch three tests flights in late 2008 and 2009 using its Falcon 9 rocket. The company stands to gain $278 million under the COTS program if it succeeds with its lofty goals.

SpaceX says the Falcon 1 rocket, currently under development, offers the lowest cost per orbital flight. It also says Falcon 5 and Falcon 9 will offer the cheapest cost per pound for an orbital payload.

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Space truckers

SpaceX's Dragon capsule is also configured to carry loads of cargo into orbit.

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SpaceX test

In March, SpaceX unsuccessfully tested its Falcon rocket. It was recently confirmed by U.S. government investigators that it was a fuel leak, not a design flaw that caused the failure. Left, you can see the fuel burning just after takeoff.

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Space hotel

While the immediate goal of the COTS program is to resupply the International Space Station after the Space Shuttle is officially scrubbed, the long-term goal is to commercialize space travel. Project's like Bigelow Aerospace's space hotel will need launch vehicles to ferry passengers to and from the space complex.

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Passenger service

SpaceX plans to carry as many as seven passengers aboard its Dragon capsule. The company will use Dragon as a vehicle for space tourists.

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module

An artist's drawing of Rocketplane's cargo capsule preparing to dock with the space station.

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landing

Rocketplane Kistler's launch and cargo vehicles will be built to be reusable. Photo 1 shows the engine section returning with parachutes. Photo 2 shows the nose section deploying parchachutes but it will also use inflatable balloons Photo 3 to bounce on the ground upon landing. Photo 4 shows early testing of the balloon landing.

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International Space Station

Rocketplane Kistler's goal--the International Space Station.

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Dragon at International Space Station

SpaceX also has big plans to rendevous with the International Space Station.

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