By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Boeing Co will bring hundreds of jobs to Florida by basing a program to develop passenger spaceships at the Kennedy Space Center, first for NASA and later for commercial use, officials said on Monday.

Boeing's plans will ease some of the pain over thousands of job losses in the so-called Space Coast region of central Florida from the end of NASA's space shuttle program earlier this year.

Boeing will ramp up its workforce to about 550 by 2015 to make, test and operate the seven-passenger spaceships, called CST-100s, said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of commercial programs for Boeing Space Exploration.

"Florida's selection made sense because of the skilled local workforce, the outstanding facilities and the proximity of our NASA customer," he said at a ceremony at the former space shuttle processing hangar where the new venture will be based.

Space Florida, a state-backed agency working to expand space-related businesses, is a partner in the project, serving as Boeing's landlord.

"It's a milestone agreement to bolster the rapidly expanding commercial space industry and bring new jobs to the Space Coast," said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.

"If anyone had any doubts that Kennedy Space Center would remain open for business, this agreement allowing Space Florida to lay the groundwork for a world-class commercial space industry here should put that notion to rest."

The Obama administration is requesting $850 million for the fiscal year that began October 1 to invest in commercial passenger spaceships.

With the shuttle fleet's retirement, the United States is dependent on Russia to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that orbits 240 miles above Earth.

"The next era of space exploration won't wait, and so we can't wait for Congress to do its job and give our space program the funding it needs," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

"That's why my administration will be pressing forward, in partnership with Space Florida and the private sector, to create jobs and make sure America continues to lead the world in exploration and discovery."

Boeing is one of four firms receiving NASA funds to develop space taxis. The others are:

* Space Exploration Technologies, a privately owned company founded and overseen by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk;

* Sierra Nevada Corp, which is working on a winged space plane that resembles the shuttle;

* Blue Origin, a startup company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Turning over transportation to and from the space station to private firms is designed to free up NASA money for a heavy-lift rocket and deep-space capsule that can travel to asteroids, the moon and other destinations beyond the station.

Russia currently charges NASA about $350 million a year for space flight services.

(Editing by Tom Brown and John O'Callaghan)