LOS ANGELES — Elon Musk's SpaceX and Boeing Co. are contending for more than $3 billion in funding to resume U.S. manned spaceflight with the first commercial venture to fly humans into orbit.
The contract to ferry astronauts to the international space station by 2017 in so-called space taxis would end U.S. reliance on Russian rockets since the space shuttle was retired three years ago. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration set a deadline to announce the award this month.
For Musk, winning would be a pivotal step toward his dream of colonizing Mars, while a Boeing victory would extend its half-century history with the U.S. space program. A third rival, Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Louisville-based Space Systems, offers a winged, shuttle-type vehicle as it seeks to expand beyond supplying rockets for sub-orbital tourist trips on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
"Boeing is the safe choice, SpaceX is the exciting choice and Sierra Nevada the interesting choice," Loren Thompson, an analyst with Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based research group, said in a phone interview.
NASA is charting a new direction 45 years after sending humans to the moon, looking to private industry for missions near Earth, such as commuting to and from the space station. Commercial operators would develop space tourism, while the space agency focuses on distant trips to Mars or asteroids.
Boeing and SpaceX probably have the leading concepts, based on the funding NASA provided to refine their designs, and a split contract may be more likely than a winner-take-all decision, said Brian Friel, a government contracts analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence in Washington, D.C.
NASA has said it might select more than one winner.
Boeing's proposed CST-100 capsule received $480 million under NASA funding awarded in 2012, compared with $400 million for SpaceX's Dragon V2 capsule and $219.5 million for Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser orbiter.
Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, declined to comment on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract.
While both SpaceX and Boeing have designed reusable capsules seating as many as seven people, their business strategies — and technology — couldn't be more different.
Musk, the 43-year-old billionaire entrepreneur who shook up the auto industry with Tesla Motors' battery-powered cars, nurtures a Silicon Valley startup culture at SpaceX. In 11 years, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies, has earned a reputation for setting audacious goals while evolving from making rockets to becoming the first private cargo hauler to the space station.
"The reason I haven't taken SpaceX public is the goals of SpaceX are very long-term, which is to establish a city on Mars," Musk said.
The Dragon V2 spacecraft is designed to return to Earth and land vertically under its own power on a launch pad, a break with years of NASA practice of relying on parachutes to cushion an ocean landing.
Boeing, the world's biggest aerospace company, is focused on shareholder value, disciplined execution and avoiding oversize bets on technology leaps.