CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - After the U.S. space shuttle program ends this month, NASA will rely on Russia and its Soyuz craft to deliver Americans to the International Space Station -- at a cost of more than $50 million a seat.
That could change relatively soon as three companies develop commercial space taxis to launch from the United States -- Boeing Co, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corp.
Boeing and SpaceX, owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, propose capsule-style ships that descend to Earth on parachutes, rather than glide like the shuttle to a runway landing. Sierra Nevada is working on a shuttle-like winged vehicle called the Dream Chaser.
All three spaceships are designed to carry up to seven people or a mix of crew and cargo.
The companies share NASA contracts worth $247 million to help pay development costs and all hope to win work flying crews to the space station. The U.S. space agency also has a $22 million contract with Blue Origin, a start-up owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos that is focusing first on suborbital flight.
"This has been painted as a revolutionary approach and it's really not as big of a deal as it's made out to be," said Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut now at SpaceX.
"NASA has been working with contractors since the very beginning. It was contractors that built the space shuttle and the Apollo rockets. What's really different this time round is something as mundane as contracting -- the way the government does business."
For large programs, NASA, like most federal agencies, traditionally reimburses contractors for all costs and adds bonuses for performance. "That can provide good people with the wrong kinds of incentives," Reisman said.
The new commercial model is fixed-priced and milestone-based.
FLIGHTS FOR TOURISTS, RESEARCH
"If we hit a stumbling block technically and we have to invest some money to get past that, that's SpaceX money that gets spent so we have skin in the game. We have a real incentive to keep it cost-effective," said Reisman.
Beyond ferrying U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, companies would be able to sell flight services to tourists, businesses and research organizations.
NASA has not yet decided whether it wants to lease new spaceships for its astronauts like a rental car or buy rides like a taxi service. Any future providers will need to prove safety and reliability, most likely with their own employees.
As NASA awaits the rollout of approved commercial vehicles -- not expected before 2015 -- it will buy rides to the space station on Russia's Soyuz craft.
NASA's commercial space initiative has drawn strong rebukes from some of its traditional supporters in Congress and longtime aerospace contractors.
"The main thing that people are fighting over right now in this whole commercial thing is the ability to preserve money for their companies and I believe it's really an ugly side of the business," said Ken Bowersox, another former astronaut also working for SpaceX.
Bowersox, a veteran of five shuttle flights and a long-duration stint on the station, is particularly sensitive to accusations the new commercial ships will not be as safe as NASA-owned vehicles.
"When people start to throw out the 'Oh, we need to protect our astronauts' card, I usually start looking for my wallet and seeing what else they're trying to take from me, because what they're really after is money," Bowersox said.
"If they were really worried about astronaut safety, I can tell you they'd be worrying about different things than what they complain about."
Being able to provide safe and reliable transportation to and from space is just as important for the companies as it is for NASA, Reisman said.
"Your business case is really, really bad if your rocket doesn't work," he said.
Before buying rides for astronauts, NASA is testing the commercial concept with cargo deliveries. SpaceX, which debuted its cargo-version Dragon capsule in December, and aerospace company Orbital Sciences Corp plan to begin freighter flights to the space station next year.
(Editing by Tom Brown and John O'Callaghan)