Compiled By Jill Jusko NASA has awarded the first round of contracts in an agency initiative to "find a more affordable and reliable highway into space." The contracts for the Space Launch Initiative (SLI) are valued at $767 million and were awarded to 22 contractors. The SLI is a research-and-development effort designed to substantially improve safety and reduce the high cost of space travel. NASA says the studies initiated with the awards are not intended to provide a specific vehicle design, but instead mark the beginning of a process to develop a common set of alternative technologies for use in future government and commercial launch systems and space-transportation operations. The SLI investment is expected to pay off with full-scale spacecraft development options by the middle of the decade, the space agency says. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is leading the SLI program. Among the contract recipients are Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., Pratt & Whitney, Northrop/Grumman Corp., and Orbital Sciences Corp.