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Space teams plan next steps


An artist's conception shows astronauts inside a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Several space ventures have reported a variety of seemingly small steps that are moving them closer to giant leaps in spaceflight — including the rise of new made-in-the-USA spaceships and commercial missions to the moon.

Here's a smorgasbord of space developments:

NASA is expected to announce sometime this summer which companies will go on to the next phase of its Commercial Crew Program, which is aimed at supporting the development of U.S.-made spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. The way things are shaping up right now, two teams would receive about $200 million from the space agency to work on an integrated launch system over the course of 21 months, while a third team would be given about $100 million. Blue Origin, the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX are receiving funding during the current phase of the program and are close to finishing up their milestones.

SpaceX has completed a concept baseline review for the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft, NASA reports. A robotic Dragon had its first hookup with the International Space Station in May, and California-based SpaceX is working to upgrade the craft to fit NASA's safety standards for astronaut flights. SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said the completion of the review places his company "exactly where we want to be — ready to move on to the next phase and on target to fly people into space aboard Dragon by the middle of the decade." (Details: NASA news release)


Artist's conception shows Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser landing on a runway.

Sierra Nevada Corp. has successfully tested the nose landing gear of its Dream Chaser prototype space plane, NASA says. That leaves one last milestone for the current phase of Sierra Nevada's agreement with NASA: an approach and landing test, which is due to take place later this year at NASA's Dryden Research Center in California. (Details: NASA news release and NASASpaceFlight.com)


Artist's concept shows Excalibur Almaz's spacecraft.

Excalibur Almaz Inc. has completed its unfunded partnership with NASA's Commercial Crew Program, involving the exchange of technical information but no exchange of money. The Houston-based company is developing a launch system that capitalizes on Russian-legacy space technology and would be capable of transferring astronauts and cargo between Earth and the International Space Station. CCP's manager, Ed Munro, said that during the partnership, "NASA learned valuable information about how the company plans to upgrade the existing capsule with modern flight capabilities." (Details: NASA news release)


The International Space Station's robotic arm extracts the Liberty Logistics Module in this artist's concept.

ATK, the company leading the development of the Liberty launch system, says it intends to offer an expanded crew and cargo capability — in the form of a pressurized pod that could carry up to 5,100 pounds of cargo to the space station. The pod, known as the Liberty Logistics Module, would ride into orbit along with the crew spacecraft, protected by a lightweight shroud. Once the launch vehicle gets beyond the atmosphere, the shroud could be jettisoned, and the LLM could be grappled by the station's robotic arm for a hookup to a docking port. ATK and its partners, including Astrium and Lockheed Martin, are aiming to get in on the next phase of the Commercial Crew Program. (Details: ATK news release)

Moon Express says former Google executive Jimi Crawford has joined the company as chief technology officer and software architect. Backed by dot-com entrepreneur Naveen Jain, Moon Express aims to put a lander and rover on the lunar surface by 2015 to win a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Crawford has most recently served as Google Books' engineering director. Among the other lines on his resume is a stint as the leader of the robotics program at NASA's Ames Research Center. "With Jimi's combined space mission and software experience, our technical team just took another giant leap forward," Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and CEO, said in a news release. (Details: Space.com)

More about the commercial space race:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.