Many Americans felt a sense of loss when NASA retired its 30-year space shuttle program last year. The program represented America’s exploration of the final frontier, and launches and landings were among the brightest spots in our modern technological history.

If you felt sad at the thought that you might never again see the familiar black and white shuttles landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA’s recent announcement should brighten your mood. The agency recently announced new agreements with three private space flight companies to create new commercial spaceships that could launch the next generation of American astronauts into space as early as 2015.

“We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) were given funding as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative award. Sierra Nevada will receive $212.5 million, SpaceX will receive $440 million, and Boeing will receive $460 million, for a total of $1.1 billion paying out as the companies meet certain milestones. The money will be used to develop vehicles that will provide domestic access to the International Space Station (ISS) for U.S. astronauts.

Currently, Boeing and SpaceX are developing private space capsules, while Sierra Nevada takes a different path with its winged Dream Chaser space plane design. When operational, all of these vehicles will make it possible for the U.S. to taxi astronauts to and from the ISS at a lower cost. With the retirement of the space shuttle program, NASA was forced to work out a deal with Russia’s Federal Space Agency that carries a cost per seat of about $63 million.

“For 50 years American industry has helped NASA push boundaries enabling us to live, work and learn in the unique environment of microgravity and low Earth orbit,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. “The benefits to humanity from these endeavors are incalculable. We’re counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business.”

Photo Credit: SpaceX