Nasa plans to award $50m in contracts to aerospace firms to improve its capability for placing humans into low Earth orbit.

The awards closely follow the 2011 Nasa budget request placed by the government, which focuses on participation of commercial firms in crew transportation to the International Space Station.

The funds include $18m to Boeing, $20m to Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), $6.7m for United Launch Alliance (ULA), $3.7m to Blue Origin band and $1.4m for Paragon Space Development Corporation.

Boeing will research and advance the concepts and technologies for a capsule-based crew transport system and develop the overall system definition.

The firm will also perform demonstration testing on life support, avionics and landing systems, and other critical subsystems for the programme.

ULA plans to develop an emergency detection system (EDS) to monitor launch vehicle and spacecraft systems and issue status, warning and abort commands during missions.

The EDS development will help meet the requirements for human rating for the Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles, according to ULA.