No one I’ve spoken with is going on record yet, but I’m hearing from reliable sources that NASA made the first round of cuts for its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts with phone calls this morning.

Out of an estimated 24 companies that applied for NASA’s new program to supply the International Space Station with crew and supplies, an unofficial six have made the first round of cuts, my sources tell me. Companies reported to have made this cut are:

Andrews Space
Rocketplane Kistler
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)
Transformational Space Corporation (t/Space)

No money will be awarded until NASA makes the final round of cuts, possibly in June or July, when one to three of these companies will get money out of a $500 million pot NASA has allocated to servicing Space Station with commercial spaceships.

My own feeling is that COTS is NASA’s best hope for maintaining its manned presence in space. NASA has relied on the Russian Soyuz spaceships for space access since space shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry in February 2003.

NASA has flown only one shuttle flight since then, its much heralded “return to flight” mission last July. Even after $1 billion in fixes, that flight was marred by the same flying external tank foam problem that doomed Columbia, and the shuttles were again indefinitely grounded.

Meanwhile, a cadre of small, nimble companies has been making steady progress toward comparatively inexpensive commercial access to space.

Stay tuned.

–UPDATE at 5:35 ET–
The sixth and final company on my list, SpaceDev, has fallen into place.

–UPDATE at 7:21–
Just heard from Chuck Lauer, new business development manager at Rocketplane. He confirms that Rocketplane Kistler is a finalist for COTS. He says he’s very encouraged by the fact that Big Aerospace stayed off the list; it shows that “NASA has really seen the value of New Space.” Referring to the big, multibillion dollar contracts to be awarded to major aerospace firms for building NASA’s new manned moon ships, he says that NASA should go further, and “take $500 million out of the Lockheed-Boeing welfare fund” to fund more entrepreneurial space efforts.