NASA announced a pair of contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station in a press conference today.

The mission for each company: build a ship capable of sending at least four astronauts at a time to the station and demo at least one flight by 2017. Thereafter, deliver two to six more missions each as required by NASA.

The contracts couldn’t come soon enough for NASA, which has, embarrassingly for the U.S. government, had to rely on Russian Soyuz launches to get its crews to the space station since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011. This flies in the face of U.S. sanctions against Russia imposed in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The new contracts are designed to end the reliance on Russia for Space Station crew flights as soon as possible.

Interestingly, the two companies won’t get an equal split of the contract money, even though they are to deliver the same set of milestones. Boeing is to get up to $4.2 billion, while SpaceX stands to make $2.6 billion. A NASA official was asked several times by reporters why Boeing gets more for the same service, but she wouldn’t comment except to say that the award amounts were based on proposals by the two companies.

My own guess is that SpaceX is charging less because it can, and because more affordable spaceflight is one of its primary missions.

See more details in my Popular Mechanics story:

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/space/nasa/3-things-to-know-about-nasas-new-private-space-contracts-17215622

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