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NASA taps SpaceX, Boeing to carry astronauts to space

In the return of human space flight for the US, NASA awards both private aerospace companies a combined total of $6.8 billion.

Boeing's CST-100 will be bringing US astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing

In a surprise move, NASA picked both Boeing and SpaceX to be the first private companies to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station. The agency announced Tuesday that the aerospace companies were awarded contracts worth a combined total of $6.8 billion.

"We know going to space is hard," NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders said during a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Tuesday. "We are counting on them to deliver our most precious cargo."

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Dragon V2 in May 2014. Tim Stevens/CNET

Chicago-based Boeing and Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX beat their other competitors for the NASA contract, which entails building space taxis that will take astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. The new contract is essential since NASA shut down its Space Shuttle program in 2011.

The spacecraft to be used by NASA are Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon V2. Both spacecraft can carry a crew of seven astronauts and launch on a variety of rockets. Boeing will receive $4.2 billion and SpaceX will get $2.6 billion. NASA said the difference in the amount of the contracts is based on the companies' proposals.

"Today we're unveiling two new spacecraft," astronaut and former ISS Expedition crew member Mike Fincke said during the press conference. "It boggles the mind to imagine the possibilities of what we're going to accomplish."

Over the next couple of years, both Boeing and SpaceX will go through NASA's certification reviews and rigorous testing to ensure that the spacecraft can safely transport people to and from space.

"The challenge of a CDR [Critical Design Review] is to ensure all the pieces and sub-systems are working together," Boeing Commercial Crew Program manager John Mulholland said in a statement. "Integration of these systems is key. Now we look forward to bringing the CST-100 to life."

According to NASA, the first flights under the new contracts could take place as early as mid-2017. During Tuesday's news conference, agency administrators seemed confident that these awards are the first step toward commercial flights to space for all members of the public.

Shuttling regular people to space is one of SpaceX's main objectives. The company's CEO and chief designer Elon Musk has said his ultimate goal is to one day see humans living on other planets.

"SpaceX is deeply honored by the trust NASA has placed in us," Musk said in a statement sent to CNET. "We welcome today's decision and the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species."