Sunday, August 16, 2009

NASA Looks to Fly Commercial

NASA Looks to Fly Commercial
Irene Klotz, Discovery News

Aug. 14, 2009 -- NASA will spend $50 million of federal economic stimulus funds to seed development of commercial passenger spaceships; however, a presidential panel reviewing the U.S. space program says that may be just the beginning.
According to the recommendations of the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans committee, which delivered its preliminary findings to the White House on Friday, NASA should set aside $2.4 billion between 2011 and 2014 for rides to the International Space Station on commercial U.S. carriers.
"There are companies that would love to move forward with orbital launch service on their own, using only private funds, but it just wouldn't happen for many, many years," John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based industry trade group, told Discovery News. "What the government funding would do is basically allow these companies to accelerate these efforts."
With the government as a base customer, commercial firms would be able to develop an array of new markets for orbital launch services, including tourism and scientific research, Gedmark added.
"When you have multiple companies doing this as part of their core business, you open the doors for all sorts of things that you can do in space," he said.
The agency has $50 million available for firms to flesh out plans to provide astronauts rides to and from space station, which orbits about 225 miles above Earth. Proposals are due by Sept. 22.

NASA is retiring the shuttle fleet after seven more missions to complete construction of the orbital outpost. The current plan is to buy rides from the Russian government until a new U.S. spaceship, called Orion, debuts in 2016, or so.
The panel reviewing the space program, however, sees another path.
"We'd like to get NASA out of the business of flying people to low-Earth orbit," said panel member and former astronaut Sally Ride.
Fifty firms told NASA they were interested in the work, including United Space Alliance, which operates the space shuttles for NASA, and Lockheed Martin, which is designing the shuttle replacement spaceship. Among the dozens of smaller firms that contacted NASA were Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp., both of which are developing cargo ships to fly to the station under NASA contracts worth $500 million, and the secretive Amazon-backed firm Blue Origin.
Absent from the list was Virgin Galactic, which plans to offer suborbital passenger space flights out of Mojave, Calif., beginning in 2010 or 2011.
"There are a lot of companies interested in what could become a new commercial spaceflight industry," Gedmark said.