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A new space race is underway that could determine which startup has the most reliable aircraft for long-term space missions. The prize: a seven-year NASA contract worth $3.5 billion and temporary bragging rights over other competitors in the exclusive sector. In the running for the top position are Orbital ATK, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.

The winner will be responsible for sending cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) in a timely manner. “We need cargo delivered to the International Space Station on a regular and reliable basis,” said NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz in an e-mail. “Regular commercial resupply missions enable NASA and our partners to continue our extensive and ongoing scientific research aboard the International Space Station.”

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On a side note, the situation in the ISS is not dire and the resident astronauts are not starving. In fact, the latest broadcasts from the quarters suggest that everyone is in high spirits. NASA launched the local space race because it wants to decrease its reliance with Russia and Japan. For now, the group sends supplies using foreign vessels, like the Russian Soyuz craft. Starting next year, Russia plans on charging NASA $70 million for every seat that is being used on the spacecraft. The U.S. wants to minimize such costs without compromising safety. At the same time, the government is immensely interested in national launches, using rockets and pads made with American technology.

The Falcon 9 crash earlier this year threw off the company’s plans to bring resupply missions to the U.S. However, this does not mean that they’ve stopped trying. The new space race is the latest addition to what could be the final piece to bringing back missions to U.S. soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011.

NASA will award the contract to one of the candidates in January of 2016. At the moment, the companies are in the process of proving to the institution that they are capable of completing the daunting task of carrying out space missions. One of the best ways to do this is by accumulating as many launches as possible.

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Orbital and SpaceX are the companies to watch, with Sierra Nevada barely hanging on in the unforgiving free-for-all. Both have blemishes in their records after suffering failed missions. “The mishap was very disappointing and a pretty big blow to the team,” highlighted Frank DeMauro, Orbital’s Vice President of Human Space Systems. “The day of the mishap, we licked our wounds and let ourselves grieve a little bit, but got right into the process of figuring out how we were going to return to fly.”

The last two conclusive launches are locked in and scheduled in the coming weeks. Oribtal is up first and will launch from Cape Canaveral this Thursday (5:55 p.m. EST to be exact). Controversially, it will use Russian-made RD-180 engines for this specific attempt. SpaceX is due to launch on January 3, 2016 using a “reconfigured” Falcon 9 rocket. In addition to sending cargo, the winner could also be asked to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.

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