NASA astronauts will once again travel from the Earth to the International Space Station – under groundbreaking contracts announced today. The space agency announced that Boeing and SpaceX were selected to transport U.S. crews to and from the space station using their CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2017, finally ending their dependence on Russia.

“From day one, the Obama Administration made clear that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Thanks to the leadership of President Obama, the hard work of our NASA and industry teams, and support from Congress, today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017. Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.”

Indeed, sending astronauts in and out of the ISS is just the first step, and while a clear date hasn’t been announced for a trip to Mars, the discussed decade seems to be the 2030s.

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As part of these contracts, The Boeing Company will receive $4.2 billion while SpaceX will get $2.6 billion. The contracts include at least one crewed flight test per company with at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify the fully integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, dock to the space station, as well as validate all its systems perform as expected.

Furthermore, these new partnerships will not only allow more independence in terms of transport to the ISS, but also it will allow the crew of the ISS (currently six members) to grow, improving and developing the experiments that can be carried out onboard.

“We are excited to see our industry partners close in on operational flights to the International Space Station, an extraordinary feat industry and the NASA family began just four years ago,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “This space agency has long been a technology innovator, and now we also can say we are an American business innovator, spurring job creation and opening up new markets to the private sector. The agency and our partners have many important steps to finish, but we have shown we can do the tough work required and excel in ways few would dare to hope.”

Personally, I’m really excited about this perspective – it’s about time NASA did something, not only to improve and advance the experiments carried out on the ISS, but also to develop future projects, like a trip to Mars or (why not) even a colony to Mars.