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America's space efforts converge

An artist's conception shows SpaceX's Dragon cargo craft approaching
the International Space Station for a delivery.

Private-sector spaceflight is going public ... or is public-sector spaceflight going private? Space industry executives and space agency officials made clear at a conference today that "Old Space" and "New Space" are converging. In fact, NASA is already gearing up to fly scientific experiments on suborbital spacecraft while they're being tested.

"The way we do space business will change," Pat Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, declared as she opened this week's International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M.

The biggest changes have to do with the blending of public and private initiatives: For example, during today's talks two former space station commanders spoke up for the commercial ventures where they now work - with both ventures working to follow through on resupply contracts for the International Space Station.

Current-day space officials, meanwhile, talked up their plans to capitalize on the innovation generated by private industry. Gary Payton, a former astronaut who is now under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, heralded the rise of "plug-and-play spacecraft" that could help the U.S. military recover from any future blows to its increasingly important space infrastructure.

Conference attendees were also abuzz over comments made on Tuesday by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who touted the wide array of private companies working on next-generation spaceships.

"Today, we at NASA are devising ways to work with these companies and others who will come," Bolden told the National Association of Investment Companies. "I urge you, and all other investors, to take notice. Space may someday soon become the new thing in investing."

In speeches and private conversation, more than one NASA official referred to the air-mail model for promoting private-sector flight: Just as the federal government encouraged the rise of commercial aviation in the 1920s by granting air-mail delivery contracts to private carriers, NASA could promote commercial spaceflight by granting contracts for private-sector services.

Orbital deliveries
One aspect has to do with deliveries to the space station. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. have both received millions from NASA to develop cargo delivery systems, and stand to gain billions more if the systems work. Both companies are due to conduct full-scale demonstrations by 2011, and both are employing former space station commanders to help them navigate the ins and outs of the NASA market.

SpaceX's ex-space skipper is Ken Bowersox, who serves as vice president for astronaut safety and mission assurance. Today Bowersox compared SpaceX's yet-to-be-launched Falcon 9 rocket to Russia's low-cost Soyuz rocket, which relies on a similar propellant mix (liquid oxygen and kerosene) and similarly small operations teams.

Orbital's space veteran is Frank Culbertson, whose title is senior vice president and deputy general manager of the company's Advanced Programs Group. Culbertson emphasized Orbital's long experience with launch systems as an advantage for its still-under-development Taurus 2 booster. "SpaceX is probably where Orbital was 25 years ago," Culbertson observed.

Both companies are looking into adapting their cargo ships (SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital's Cygnus) to accommodate crew as well, with potential backing from NASA's $50 million CCDev program. NASA is due to announce how that stimulus money will be used next month.

At the same time, NASA is getting set to test its own Ares I-X rocket prototype next week. Eventually, the Ares I may be used to send crew to the space station in Orion capsules, but there's a continuing controversy over whether the Ares program should be pushed forward, put on hold or dramatically revised.

An independent panel's final report on the options for NASA's human exploration program, scheduled for release on Thursday, may shed more light on the Ares I debate. However, the report isn't likely to end the debate.

One member of the panel, retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, said on Tuesday that the Ares I should go ahead "as it's currently structured." But another member, XCOR Aerospace CEO Jeff Greason, told today's audience in New Mexico that Ares I didn't make financial or programmatic sense.

"The truth is, Ares I right now is a paper booster," Greason said. He said it was his "personal opinion" that going with upgraded versions of existing rockets such as the Atlas 5 or the Delta 4 would give NASA the most value for the money. Those rockets are already building up a track record for commercial and military launches, he noted - and he argued that further enhancements could make them sufficiently safe for astronauts.

Suborbital deliveries
There was no debate over the idea that future suborbital spaceships will offer low-cost research opportunities for NASA and the scientists who conduct NASA-funded experiments. Such research missions, flown on craft such as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, are expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars - which is far less than the current multimillion-dollar price tag for a suborbital rocket launch.

Wayne Hale, a former shuttle manager who is now the agency's deputy associate administrator of strategic partnerships, echoed Bolden's enthusiasm about the commercial options - particularly for suborbital research. "We are here to encourage this industry. We are here to enable this industry," Hale said.

However, he stressed that NASA had to ensure that the suborbital flights met the appropriate safety standards. Those standards may turn out to be more stringent for federally supported fliers than for private-sector space tourists, at least at first.

Charles Miller, senior adviser for commercial space at NASA's Innovative Partnership Program, said the space agency is currently considering what kinds of safety standards would be appropriate for commercial spaceflights carrying NASA personnel or NASA-funded researchers. In the meantime, the space agency is planning to pay to fly automated experiments that do not require human tending, perhaps as early as 2010, during the test flight phase that will take place before tourist flights begin.

Timetable for tourism
And when will those tourist flights begin? Generally speaking, the two-year rule of spaceflight prediction still applies - which means 2011 is the best guess. Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are scheduled to unveil SpaceShipTwo in early December, and drop tests could begin soon afterward. Julia Tizard, Virgin Galactic's operations manager, said the timetable for beginning commercial flights is a "million-dollar question" that currently has no firm answer.

"Test flights will pace the program," Tizard said.

Those test flights will begin at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, which is Scaled Composites' home turf. Eventually, however, Virgin Galactic plans to move SpaceShipTwo operations to Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Steve Landeene, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said the facility's 10,000-foot-long airstrip could be ready for business as early as next August. That runway could be used for military flights conducted under the aegis of nearby Holloman Air Force Base - or for SpaceShipTwo flights, assuming that all the right regulatory steps are taken.

Tizard told me that if all the factors were favorable, the late phases of SpaceShipTwo's testing would be conducted in New Mexico. "It would be stupid for us not to come here," she said.

Update for 12:40 a.m. ET Oct. 22: The Orlando Sentinel reports that Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., launched a pre-emptive strike against the independent panel's report, calling it "worthless" because it didn't fully consider safety and reliability issues. The last time Shelby erupted like this, a plan to allocate $150 million for alternative spaceship development was trimmed back to $50 million. Shelby's latest blast signals that any move to modify the Ares program dramatically will face stiff congressional resistance.

Update for 9:45 a.m. ET Oct. 22: NASA's Charles Miller got back to me with intriguing comments about putting experiments on suborbital spaceships during test flights, and I've added that into the posting. In fact, I've highlighted that in the lead paragraph. We'll hear more about the future of suborbital space research at the ISPCS conference today.

Stay tuned for more from the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight. For real-time updates, search for #ISPCS on Twitter. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And reserve your copy of my book, "The Case for Pluto," which is coming out this month.