NASA has awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX that it hopes will carry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017.
The agency made the historical announcement at a 4:00 p.m. press conference that announced the privatization of space travel for humans and NASA's ambition to land humans on Mars.
The nearly $7 billion in contracts represents a balance of old and new through the pairing of defense contractor Boeing and the upstart SpaceX.
Boeing has long built aircraft for the military and NASA, in addition to commercial airliners, but the Elon Musk-backed SpaceX has only recently begun transporting goods to the International Space Station.
SpaceX is set to make its fourth such delivery later this month, according to a Monday press release from NASA.
NASA administrator Charlie Bolden called this move "the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human space flight."
It is a natural evolution, he explained, of President Barack Obama mandating that U.S. astronauts no longer rely on Russia for transport.
"The greatest nation on earth should not be reliant on Russian spacecraft," said Bolden, reiterating previous remarks made by the president.
As much as $6.8 billion will be awarded between the two firms as they work towards a 2017 deadline for certification to NASA standards for low-earth orbit, said Bolden.
"This wasn't an easy choice, but it's the best choice for NASA and the nation," he added.
Contracting out low-earth orbits will allow the space agency to focus on its ultimate goal: to send humans to Mars.
NASA has previously expressed a desire to land humans on the red planet. Scientists are currently working on the next generation of deep-space rockets they expect to eventually ferry humans further into space than ever before.
Previous reports indicated the choice was down to either Boeing or SpaceX.
"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, Virginia-based research group, told Bloomberg last week.
Humans were first sent to the moon 45 years ago and NASA has since decommissioned the space shuttles used in the decades after the "Eagle" landed.
Other competitors included Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin, the latter of which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Musk, the 43-year-old founder of Tesla, told reporters earlier this month that the "goals of SpaceX are very long-term, which is to establish a city on Mars," according to Bloomberg.
A NASA contract and funding would at least help nudge the startup in that direction, but it is not clear if NASA is willing to work with Musk to make that dream a reality.
One thing is for certain, NASA will no longer be flying space shuttles – to the space station or beyond.
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