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Ever since the retirement of the space shuttle three years ago, American astronauts have had to hitchhike their way to the International Space Station aboard Russian spaceships. It is an increasingly costly arrangement, which the head of NASA has called “unacceptable,” made worse by U.S.-Russian tensions over the crisis in Ukraine.

But in the coming weeks, NASA is expected to announce its long-awaited solution: a multibillion-dollar contract to build a U.S. spacecraft, which could help reignite a struggling American space program.

Instead of paying the Russians more than $70 million a seat to ride their Soyuz spacecraft to the space station, the contract would give the United States the ability, for the first time in years, to launch American astronauts into space from U.S. soil.

In a significant shift for an agency that long owned and operated its own rockets, NASA is looking to the private sector to build what would be the equivalent of a rental car for space: a privately owned vehicle that the agency would hire to give its astronauts a ride before returning it — re-entry burn marks and all.

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