After announcing its new deep space rocket and Apollo program heir, NASA says that they will give $1.61 billion to private companies to design a full system and a spacecraft capable of ferrying cargo and astronauts to the ISS.
The money will fund the Integrated Design Contract and the Commercial Crew Development Round 2, which will take it where the shuttle left.
The process is open to different companies, like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX or Dream Chaser. In the first phase, companies will use part of that money to present their systems. On the second phase, the winner—or winners, if the budget allows—from phase one will finish their projects.
It will begin in July 2012 and end in April 2014. At the end of this long tunnel, there will be something that will take US astronauts to the ISS low-earth orbit. Until then, it's Soyuz all the way.
That will give the winning program six years of operation—the ISS is expected to be sunk in the ocean in 2020. Hopefully, the systems would be in place to go somewhere else by then. Perhaps one of Bigelow's space motels. [NASA, NASA and NASA]