NASA’s selection of a Lockheed Martin team to develop the vehicle that is supposed to become the centerpiece of the U.S. human spaceflight program is a critical milestone for the agency and the contractors. It is an opportunity that neither can afford to fumble.

The aerospace industry and NASA share a tainted — and deserved — reputation for not being able to deliver a major program on time and within the original budget. One of the best ways to ensure that U.S. President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration is able to sustain its fragile political support will be to put that reputation to rest.

Lockheed Martin clearly convinced NASA that it was the best choice to serve as the prime contractor on the most important agency development project in more than 30 years. If the Lockheed Martin team succeeds, NASA will have a safer space transportation system, one that will be useful not only for getting crews to and from the international space station, but more importantly one that will serve as the platform for missions to the Moon, Mars and other interesting spots in the solar system.

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, will have the leading U.S. industry role in human spaceflight, just as it does today in robotic planetary missions. That combination, along with the company’s position in the military and commercial space markets, could well make it the leading space company in the world, and perhaps elevate space to a much more important place in the company’s portfolio.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle ( CEV) is not the only NASA program where the stakes are sky high for both the government and its contractors.

The $500 million worth of Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts NASA is signing with Space Exploration Technologies and Rocketplane Kistler represent an opportunity for the entrepreneurial space community to prove that a more business-oriented approach to space transportation services can save NASA money and still deliver a quality product.

Entrepreneurial firms have complained for more than a decade that NASA was standing in the way of a more business-like approach would eventually open the space frontier to the masses. In recent years they have begged, pleaded and demanded that NASA fund the research and development necessary to bring some of their ideas to fruition.

Two of these companies now have the seed money to help put them over the fundraising hurdles that have kept them on the sidelines. Even those who did not win the initial COTS contracts will have an opportunity to compete for actual space station services deals in the second phase of the program if they can raise enough private money to keep going.

The price of failure on either the CEV or the COTS program is high.

If the CEV effort runs into major problems , NASA will face a choice of keeping the space shuttle flying beyond its scheduled 2010 retirement date and risking another fatal accident or relying on others — most likely Russia — to get U.S. astronauts to and from space. It would be a huge and expensive setback for the U.S. human spaceflight program that would put off indefinitely any forays beyond the familiar confines of Earth orbit. Those who believe the shuttle system can and should continue to fly beyond 2010 will have been handed a powerful argument in their favor.

Meanwhile, if the COTS contractors fail to deliver a useful space station logistics vehicle it likely will be decades before the entrepreneurial space community gets another serious chance — at least with government money.

Many promises have been made by NASA, its traditional contractors and the entrepreneurial community. All three are now in the limelight and it is time to deliver on those promises and send a resounding message to the American people and to the rest of the world that the U.S. human spaceflight program finally has its act together.