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Role of SpaceX in NASA deal marks shift in space contracts

Dragon Version 2 is a SpaceX spacecraft capable of making a terrestrial soft landing.
Dragon Version 2 is a SpaceX spacecraft capable of making a terrestrial soft landing.
Courtesy of SpaceX

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Astronauts will soon be flying to space from crafts launched from American soil. At least, that's the idea from NASA, which yesterday awarded contracts to two US firms to develop, test and fly space taxis to the international space station.

Why are they called "space taxis"?

Partly because unlike most space programs in the past, both companies will own and operate the equipment. That raises a host of questions, says Andy Pasztor, senior special writer with the Wall Street Journal. For example, how will federal oversight work? What kind of safety measures will be put in place? And will the rockets be used to ferry space tourists as well as astronauts?

RELATED: NASA picks Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts

In the announcement Tuesday, NASA chief Charles Bolden called it "the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human space flight." The agency expects the first trip to take place by 2017.

Boeing, a giant in the industry, has been around for nearly a century, but Hawthorne-based SpaceX is relatively new to the scene. The company, headed by Elon Musk, represents the new, entrepreneurial spirit in space travel, said Pasztor.

“SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us," Musk, the CEO & Chief Designer of SpaceX said in a statement to KPCC.  "It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species."

Mars: We're talking about you.