SpaceX and Boeing will partner with NASA to launch U.S. astronauts into space, ending recent dependence on Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station.
NASA announced the partnership Tuesday, the space agency's first contract with private companies to build spacecraft for astronaut use. Since NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011, U.S. astronauts have relied on Russia to get to and from the International Space Station.
NASA administrator Charlie Bolden heralded the new plans as the beginning of "the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of human space flight."
"Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry also will allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars," he said.
The combined contracts are valued at about $6.8 billion, and the aim is to have spacecraft certified by NASA by 2017.
In the meantime, NASA will continue to test Orion, a "multipurpose crew vehicle." Its first test flight is scheduled for December, and plans are in the works to use the craft to send an astronaut into space beyond the moon. Those missions will prepare U.S. astronauts for touchdown on Mars, Bolden said.
"We hope the American people will be inspired to join us on this next great, ambitious leg of humanity's journey farther into our solar system than ever before," he said.