WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the winners of $50 million in seed funding to develop a commercial crew transportation system, calling the selected firms key partners in the agency’s plans for privatizing human spaceflight.

During a Feb. 2 news conference at the National Press Club here, Bolden introduced representatives of seven companies that submitted proposals under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program NASA initiated last year with $50 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. The economic stimulus money, divided among just five finalists in attendance, is intended to fund development of new life-support technologies and launch-abort systems to crew vehicles capable of ferrying astronauts into space.

“We asked them for their boldest ideas and concepts, the things that we would truly need to make commercial crew a reality,” Bolden said in opening remarks at the press conference. “They gave us some great proposals. This is by no means the end of this process, but it is a fantastic start.”

Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada Corp. was the big winner in NASA’s CCDev contest, garnering $20 million in stimulus funds to work on a lifting-body vehicle called Dream Chaser that has been in the works for several years.

Mark Sirangelo, vice president and chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems, said the company’s planned six-passenger vehicle is based on NASA’s HL-20 concept from the early 1990s.

“We have now brought that concept forward, and we’re very thrilled to be part of this group and to be able to move that idea to the next level,” Sirangelo said during the news conference.

Houston-based Boeing Space Exploration garnered $18 million in award money to mature plans for a crew transportation system it is designing with North Las Vegas, Nev.-based Bigelow Aerospace that  includes a seven-person crew capsule capable of launching on medium-class expendable rockets. And Denver-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., won $6.7 million to develop its so-called Emergency Detection System to monitor the health of the firm’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. “This new project that we’re starting, Emergency Detection System, is all about crew safety,” ULA President and Chief Executive Mike Gass said during the news conference. Gass said the CCDev money would be used “to make sure we understand our system fully and to be able to give the appropriate signal for potential abort if necessary.”

Blue Origin, the normally secretive Kent, Wash.-based company that is developing a space vehicle dubbed New Shepard, was awarded $3.7 million to build a launch escape system for its rocket-propelled vehicle that would ferry multiple astronauts into low Earth orbit and allow researchers to fly experiments in space and microgravity.

“We’re developing a ‘pusher’ escape system,” Blue Origin’s Robert Millman said during the news conference. “You may be familiar that a traditional tractor escape system involves the tower jettisoning, so we’ll be developing an escape motor at the back of the capsule which will avoid the jettison events, and also because it will avoid consuming it on a nominal launch, it will lower the operating costs.”

Millman said Blue Origin is also using CCDev money to further development of a composite pressure vessel.

“This will be a[n] all-composite structure for containing the astronauts,” Millman said. “It will improve the durability over conventional technology and also lower weight.”

Jane Poynter president and chairman of Tucson, Ariz.-based Paragon Space Development Corp., said her company will use its $1.4 million CCDev award to build and demonstrate an air-revitalization system that could be incorporated into any contemplated commercial space capsule, including Space Exploration Technologies’ Dragon capsule or a crewed variant of the Cygnus vehicle proposed by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp.

“Our air-revitalization system that we’re developing under this program is really one of the first of its kind because it will be a turn-key system that can be used on an array of missions on pretty much any spacecraft,” Poynter said during the news conference.

Although NASA rejected proposals from Orbital and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) for the CCDev award, representatives from both companies joined Bolden at the news conference to express support for the new space exploration strategy laid out the previous day in NASA’s 2011 budget proposal.

Both Orbital and Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX are developing  cargo systems under NASA’s $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and are under contract to deliver cargo to the international space station beginning in 2011.

Orbital Chairman and Chief Executive Dave Thompson, whose company submitted a CCDev proposal based on the Taurus 2 medium-lift rocket and Cygnus cargo vehicle being developed under COTS, praised the administration of President Barack Obama for setting a new course for NASA heavy on technology development and commercial partnerships.

“My judgment is that during its first turn at bat, the Obama administration really hit it out of the park with its proposal for NASA’s new approach to our civil space program,” Thompson said. Thompson said that work completed to date under the COTS program shows the private sector is up to the challenge of developing commercial crew capabilities. SpaceX is slated to debut its COTS contribution, the Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket and Dragon capsule, sometime this year, while Orbital is planning the maiden launch of Taurus 2 and Cygnus for March 2011.

“I think that will pave the way, not too many years later, to the first launches of astronauts to low Earth orbit,” he said.