WASHINGTON — NASA said Dec. 10 it has awarded $30 million worth of Certification Products Contracts (CPC) to the three companies competing to become the agency’s post-shuttle provider of astronaut transportation services.

The CPC contracts run from Jan. 22, 2013 through May 30, 2014, NASA said in a press release. The contracts will allow Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, to work hand-in-hand with government officials to ensure that the crewed transportation these companies are designing meets NASA’s human safety standards. Each company’s CPC contract is worth about $10 million, NASA said.

In August, NASA announced these companies would split 21-month Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreements worth a combined $1.1 billion. The companies are working on astronaut transportation systems that include a rocket and a crew vehicle. NASA wants at least one of these systems to be ready to fly U.S. crews by 2017.

Space Act Agreements, NASA’s alternative procurement vehicle, are not subject to the extensive Federal Acquisition Regulations that govern traditional government contracts. NASA says it cannot require recipients of Space Act Agreements to meet government design requirements as a condition of accepting federal funding.

The performance periods of the CPC contracts announced Dec. 10 and the CCiCap Space Act Agreements announced in August are timed to overlap, giving NASA and its industry partners a legal way to work together on safety ratings requirements during the design process, officials at NASA headquarters here have said.

NASA plans to solicit awards for a second phase of CPC funding in “mid-2014,” according to the Dec. 10 press release. Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight development division at NASA headquarters, said at a November meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee that any company may bid in Phase 2, whether it won a Phase 1 award or not. However, he added, “it would be hard for somebody who has not participated in previous phases [of CPC] to be credible.”

The CPC contract award announcement arrived earlier than expected. NASA officials said as recently as November that they would probably make CPC awards in February.

“They’d estimated February initially, but from what I understand, the whole process went smoothly and efficiently, enabling the December announcement,” NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto said in a Dec. 11 email.

“We’re all in the middle of trying to do design work, and the sooner we get this engaged and the sooner that we start a dialog about the certification process, the better we all are,” Mark Sirangelo, executive vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, said in a Dec. 13 phone interview.

Boeing and SpaceX got larger CCiCap awards than Sierra Nevada. The former companies are proposing capsule-based transportation systems while Sierra Nevada is working on a lifting-body vehicle called Dream Chaser. NASA’s human spaceflight chief, William Gerstenmaier, said the agency kept Dream Chaser in the program as a backup option. Development of that craft could be accelerated quickly if required, Gerstenmaier said.

NASA currently pays Russia about $65 million a seat to send U.S. astronauts to the space station.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...