NASA and the United Launch Alliance announced a formal agreement on Monday to look at using the giant Atlas V rocket to send astronauts into space as a commercial venture. The U.S. government officially ended its role in directly sending astronauts into orbit earlier this month with the final launch of a space shuttle. It is scheduled to land Thursday. NASA will contract out launches from now on - for the next few years, to the Russians, but later to U.S. commercial companies. "Having ULA on board may speed the development of a commercial crew transportation system for the International Space Station, allowing NASA to concentrate its resources on exploring beyond low Earth orbit," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. The United Launch Alliance hopes that its Atlas V rockets will carry the new launch vehicles, the cone-shaped capsules known as multipurpose crew vehicles or MPCVs -- unofficially, Orion -- made by Lockheed Martin. "This program will develop the capability to deliver U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station," George Sowers of the United Launch Alliance told reporters on a conference call. "We feel strongly that the U.S. aerospace industry is capable of developing and delivering this capability affordably and safely." The unfunded agreement calls for NASA to consult with ULA on how to make the rocket into a safe and reliable launch vehicle. Last month, NASA's Office of Inspector General asked the space agency to do a better job telling contractors what it needs. NASA already uses Atlas Vs for some of its highest-profile projects, including the upcoming Juno mission to Jupiter, scheduled to launch August 5. "The next step for Atlas is to launch humans," Sowers said. The end of the shuttle program has cost thousands of jobs. Contractors to the Kennedy Space Center on the coast of central Florida have announced 7,000 layoffs this year. ULA employs 1,700 people in Centennial, Colorado.
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