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NASA is partnering with private companies SpaceX and Boeing for manned flights to low-Earth orbit, a move that will end the agency’s expensive dependency on Russian launches to the International Space Station and free up resources for a potential manned Mars mission.

NASA officials made the announcement Tuesday afternoon at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. As part of the agency's Launch America initiative, NASA'S Commercial Crew Program will work with the two companies to certify their human space transportation systems and oversee test launches. The overall goal is to begin regular flights to and from the ISS beginning in 2017.

NASA is currently contracting with the Russian space program at a cost of $71 million per seat aboard its Soyuz spacecraft.

Boeing’s contract with NASA is valued at $4.2 billion dollars, while SpaceX’s is valued at $2.6 billion. SpaceX, however, has something of an advantage, as it has already successfully completed cargo flights to and from the ISS. In order to fulfill their contracts, each company will need to conduct at least two and as many as six crewed missions to the ISS, and their craft will serve as lifeboats for crews aboard the station.

NASA officials say privatizing low-Earth orbit flights will allow the agency to devote more time and resources to developing spacecraft for deep space missions.

Speaking at today's press conference, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said, "Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars."

Texans have reason to celebrate after today's announcement. Besides the exciting prospect of a Mars mission, the Central Texas area could benefit economically, as SpaceX tests its rocket engines at a facility in McGregor.