NEW YORK — It might not be the race to the moon, but competition is still fierce to haul supplies to the International Space Station.
NASA is due to award the station’s supply contract, which will run from 2017 to 2024, on Thursday, although a decision has already been postponed several times. It could be worth as much as $14 billion to carry about 18 tons of supplies annually.
The winning bidders will carry everything from food, water and oxygen to laptops, printers and science experiments aboard unmanned rockets. NASA is expected to once again pick at least two separate companies to provide the cargo service.
The contract could provide winning bidders with the money they need to pursue more ambitious manned flights.
The two companies that hold the current contract have each had their problems. SpaceX, owned and run by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, had a supply rocket explode in June on the company’s seventh supply flight to the station. Orbital ATK suffered its own rocket explosion in October 2014.
Both companies are still in the hunt for the new contract, as are aerospace giant Boeing and upstart Sierra Nevada, which is trying to develop its own small version of the space shuttle named Dream Chaser.
NASA halted flights of its own space shuttle in 2011. In an era of tighter budgets, NASA has relied on private contractors and the Russian space agency to carry astronauts and supplies into outer space. In September 2014, NASA tapped Boeing and SpaceX to each work on developing the next generation of manned space capsule.
Sierra Nevada lost out on that competition, but still hopes to get a lift from the cargo supply contract.
Lockheed Martin, which already has a contract to manage, store and maintain the more than 3 million items shipped to the ISS, was a contender for the supply contract as well. But media reports last month said it has been quietly dropped from consideration due to price.