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NASA set to award space station cargo contracts

Multibillion-dollar contracts NASA is expected to award as soon as Thursday will establish the fleet of U.S. vehicles servicing the International Space Station into the next decade, and could introduce a new spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center. The space agency was scheduled to announce the winners of contracts to deliver cargo to the space station on unmanned craft between 2018 and 2024, decisions that have been delayed multiple times this year.

The incumbent cargo haulers, SpaceX and Orbital ATK, hope to continue their services, while Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. hope to claim a piece of the action that could be worth up to $14 billion. For Sierra Nevada, which last year lost out to Boeing and SpaceX on contracts to fly astronauts, the cargo deals offer a second and perhaps last chance to bring the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to life.

“We have worked through a lot of design changes, all of which made us a better vehicle,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Space Systems, in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, I feel we are a good choice for the country.” SpaceX already launches cargo from Cape Canaveral in Dragon capsules, while Orbital ATK plans to resume launches from Virginia once its redesigned Antares rocket returns to flight next year. But contract wins by either Boeing or Sierra Nevada would mean more work at Kennedy Space Center.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is one of the two capsules NASA has selected to fly astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017, along with SpaceX’s Dragon, and will be assembled at KSC. That work already is expected to total 550 jobs. An expansion of the CST-100’s role to include uncrewed cargo runs would increase activity at Boeing’s KSC facilities, which include a former space shuttle hangar and engine shop. “We think we add a lot of value to NASA with our cargo proposal,” John Mulholland, head of Boeing’s commercial space programs, told reporters in September. “We’ll see a strong impact with the successful cargo (bid).”