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Private spaceflight goes public


Sierra Nevada
  NASA calls for the International Space Station to be serviced by private-sector spaceships such as Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser craft, shown in this artwork.

"Apollo on steroids"? Forget about it. Back to the moon? Not anytime soon. NASA's new vision for space exploration is less specific on a destination, but more focused on making room for new technologies and new players in spaceflight.

Some critics in Congress say they'll fight to keep some elements of the moon plan in place - but one of the most influential critics says it would be "very difficult" to change NASA's new course.

In its budget request, released today, the White House is seeking $19 billion for the space agency during fiscal 2011, which is a slight increase from the current fiscal year's $18.7 billion. But over the next five years, NASA says it will have $6 billion more than previously planned, with most of that going to support technology development and commercialization.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters that the increase represented "an extraordinary show of support in these tough budgetary times."

The most dramatic and controversial part of the plan wasn't the decision to put off the next lunar landing. Previous studies suggested that NASA's Constellation program couldn't possibly get humans back to the moon by 2020, as President George W. Bush proposed six years ago. The best NASA could have managed was somewhere in the 2028 time frame, according to last year's Augustine panel review.

Nor was it the decision to cancel NASA's Ares 1 rocket development program. A prototype of the medium-lift launch vehicle went through a successful test last October, at a cost of $445 million. But Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee on space, told reporters today that Ares 1 was a "non-starter" because it wouldn't have been ready until 2018. That's too late for it to be of much service to the International Space Station. "It was a rocket in search of a mission," Nelson said.

No, the biggest shift had to do with who would be in charge of providing the successors to the space shuttle fleet, which is currently due for retirement by the end of this year. Instead of having its own human spaceflight program to service the space station, NASA said it would buy rides in private-sector space taxis. In Nelson's words, "the commercial boys" would be in the driver's seat.

"If the commercial boys don't work, then we are stuck for upwards of a decade relying on the Russians ... and that is not a good position to be in," the senator said.

New Space and Old Space
Some of those commercial boys are actually the same companies that are working on the shuttle program under NASA's direction, albeit in different combinations. Others are relative newcomers. In the course of laying out the rationale behind NASA's budget request, agency administrator Charles Bolden announced that five companies would share $50 million in federal stimulus funds to jump-start the commercialization of human spaceflight:

  • Blue Origin, the sometimes-secretive rocket venture founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, will receive $3.7 million. The eight-year-old company has been testing rocket prototypes for suborbital flights at its Texas spaceport, but this is the first firm evidence of its orbital aspirations. NASA's money will go toward the development of a launch escape system and a composite crew module for structural testing. "We are pleased to be selected by NASA as a member of the CCDev team," program manager Rob Meyerson said in a statement. "Blue Origin continues to work patiently and step-by-step to lower the cost of spaceflight so that humans can continue exploring the solar system."
  • The Boeing Co. - which is the prime contractor for the space station and a partner in the United Space Alliance, which runs the shuttle program for NASA - will receive $18 million for development of a seven-person crew capsule for travel to and from the space station. One of Boeing's partners in the project is Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, which has launched two inflatable space modules into orbit and would help design the crew capsule.
  • Paragon Space Development Corp., an Arizona-based company that specializes in life support systems for spacecraft, would get $1.4 million for the development of an air revitalization system. One of the company's many projects is to build a "Lunar Oasis" mini-greenhouse that would be sent to the moon aboard a privately funded lunar lander.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. would receive $20 million to aid in the development of a space plane known as the Dream Chaser. Through its subsidiary, SpaceDev, Sierra Nevada has worked on microsatellites as well as the hybrid rocket engines used on SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo.
  • United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture that offers Atlas and Delta expendable rockets, would get $6.7 million. The U.S. military has been using the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 for years, but they've never been approved for sending humans into space. NASA still has to establish a procedure for certifying that commercial rockets are safe for human spaceflight - and industry executives said they were starting to work with the space agency on the all-important safety issue. NASA's money would go toward developing an emergency detection system for ULA's rockets.

The money is aimed at encouraging the companies to develop new concepts for sending astronauts to the space station and back down to Earth, and to demonstrate those concepts with actual hardware.


  Click for video: Astronomer Derrick Pitts discusses NASA's space plans with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on "Countdown."

NASA has already been paying out tens of millions of dollars to two other companies, California-based SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, to develop unmanned spaceships for delivering supplies to the space station. SpaceX's first demonstration flight of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule is scheduled for the middle of this year.

If those companies are successful with their cargo craft, NASA will pay them $3.5 billion between now and 2016. By that time, NASA hopes that commercial spaceships will be cleared to fly astronauts to the space station and back.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said his company could provide crew transport capability two or three years after it receives a NASA contract. However, SpaceX "was obviously not a winner" in the latest NASA competition, Musk said. He explained that there wasn't enough money available from the $50 million program to perfect a launch escape tower for the Dragon - which is considered essential for crew safety.

"We don't have any issue with that," Musk said.

Congress strikes back
What Musk does have an issue with is congressional criticism of NASA's commercial spaceflight plan. "It's important to separate the comments from the vested interests," he told me during today's teleconference. "There are certain members of Congress who cannot be swayed by any rational argument. They simply want the answer to be that funding continues in their district, independent of any sound basis for it."

The sharpest criticism came from the places that are most heavily invested in spaceflight as it's being done today:

  • From Alabama, where NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center has played a key role in developing the Ares 1 rocket: GOP Sen. Richard Shelby said NASA's budget proposal "begins the death march for U.S. human spaceflight." Sen. Jeff Sessions, also a Republican, said NASA's plan "abandons our nation's nearly five-decade commitment to human spaceflight and will likely result in NASA taking a back seat to China, Russia and India in space exploration."
  • From Texas, home of NASA's Johnson Space Center and Mission Control: GOP Rep. Pete Olson said the budget proposal raises questions about President Barack Obama's "desire to have a [space] program to sustain at all," and fellow GOP House member Ralph Hall said he was "alarmed that the administration is planning to reject all that we have accomplished." Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said "we're going to be very vocal about any undermining of the commitment to NASA."
  • From Florida, where the team at NASA's Kennedy Space Center launches shuttles: GOP Rep. Bill Posey called the space agency's plan "a giant step backwards," and Democratic Rep. Suzanne Kosmas said "the president's proposal is unacceptable."

Nelson seemed somewhat less pugnacious about about NASA's change in course: "When the president says he's going to cancel Constellation, I can tell you, to muster the votes and overcome that is going to be very, very difficult."

Jobs are a big concern in the aerospace industry, as they are for the nation as a whole. Because NASA's five-year spending plan was getting a boost, Bolden said "we expect to support as many if not more jobs with the FY 2011 funding the president has proposed." But others fear that the job equation will take a negative turn. Nelson said canceling Constellation would eliminate about 7,000 jobs in Florida alone - which would outweigh the jobs expected to be created through commercialization (1,700 in Florida, 5,000 nationwide).


  Click for video: Space policy expert Scott Pace and Space Adventures' Eric Anderson discuss NASA's plans on CNBC.

Last year, Congress wrote a provision into NASA's current budget saying that the White House couldn't cancel the Constellation program without Congress' assent - and Nelson told me "that will be a matter" in the negotiations over the next budget. Late today, Nelson's aides said the senator would look into continuing some aspects of the Ares rocket program, just in case NASA's commercialization scheme didn't work out.

But Musk said NASA's new spending plan was a recognition of fiscal realities, as well as an opportunity for commercial spaceflight. "Success was not one of the possible outcomes from a budgetary standpoint," he said. "It was simply a matter of when it would be canceled, not if."

Some lawmakers said NASA should stick with the Constellation program because more than $9 billion has been spent on Ares and the Orion crew capsule already. But Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, had a sharp retort for those critics.

"I think the fact that we've poured $9 billion into an unexecutable program really isn't an excuse to pour another $50 billion into it and still not have an executable program," he said. "That's what I would tell taxpayers."

The road ahead in space
During the run-up to the budget proposal's release, a lot of attention was devoted to what NASA's space effort was not going to do. But today, NASA and commercial space executives spoke more freely about what the space agency and its partners would be doing.

If I had a nickel for every time the NASA briefers used the phrase "game-changing" and "innovative" ... well, I certainly could have bought another latte today. That might have made up for the fact that the space agency's top officials couldn't give a precise timetable or itinerary for future voyages beyond low Earth orbit. "We don't want to set an arbitrary deadline, as has been done," said Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator.

Instead, NASA's budget lays out how much money could be spent over the next five years to advance exploration-related research and development:

  • $7.8 billion for demonstrations of space technologies such as on-orbit refueling, inflatable space modules, robotic docking systems and closed-loop life support systems.
  • $3.1 billion for heavy-lift propulsion research and development. Garver suggested that NASA was not interested in "a restacking of existing technologies" for a heavy-lift launcher such as the previously planned Ares 5 or the shuttle-derived DIRECT system. Instead, she favored a fresh approach for the rockets that could carry humans beyond Earth orbit. She also said the heavy-lift rocket should be developed in cooperation with international partners.
  • $3 billion for robotic precursor missions - for example, a lunar lander that can be remote-controlled from Earth and can send back near-live video, or a factory that turns material from the moon or an asteroid into usable resources.

Where might all this lead? Administrator Bolden reeled off a few flights of fancy:

"Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of 'firsts'; and imagine all this being done collaboratively with nations around the world," he said. "That is what the president's plan for NASA will enable, once we develop the new capabilities to make it a reality."

NASA's commercial partners voiced their own visions for the next 10 years. Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder of Bigelow Aerospace, said he was aiming to put his first habitable space station into operation in 2015, with 30-day orbital visits available at $22.95 million per seat. And the visions for 2020 were even more ambitious.

"I think I'm going to go out on a limb and say that in 2020 there will probably be very serious plans to go to Mars, with people," SpaceX's Musk said.

Bigelow climbed out on the same limb: "We as a company have lunar ambitions. ... and we also have Mars ambitions as well." Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson, meanwhile, predicted that private space explorers would be circumnavigating the moon by 2020.

That's a lot of brave talk, but the talk sounded equally brave six years ago when Bush announced that NASA would be sending astronauts back to the moon by 2020. So what do you think? Is this the beginning of a death march, a new era, or something in between? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.  

More about NASA's new vision on the Web:

This report was last updated at 2:30 p.m. ET Feb. 2.

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