August 10, 2009

NASA Seeks Partner To Create Commercial Space Service

Officials with NASA said they plan to spend $50 million of federal economic stimulus money to foster development of a commercial space service, according to a Reuters report on Monday.

As part of the Commercial Crew Development program, aspiring spaceship firms will have 45 days to submit their proposals to NASA for evaluation.  The agency is expected to announce the awards in September.

NASA is decommissioning its space shuttles next year after seven more missions to complete construction of International Space Station (ISS), the $100 billion facility that orbits 225 miles above the Earth.

After the shuttle fleet is retired, NASA plans to purchase transport for astronauts to and from the station from Russia, one of the 16 nations involved in the ISS program.

The space agency is spending half a billion dollars to help two U.S. firms, privately-held Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corp., develop rockets and capsules to transport cargo to the ISS.

NASA's contract with SpaceX includes an option to enhance the company's Dragon cargo ship for passenger service.  SpaceX has said it needs $300 million, most of which would fund development of a launch escape system for the crew.

"It's a little disappointing that (the new program) is only $50 million," said SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk in an interview with Reuters.

"Fifty million is what it costs for one seat on the (Russian) Soyuz."

However, Musk praised move as a step in the right direction.

"The main thing that the public should be taking note of is that right now we are (solely dependent) on the Russians (for space transports) after 2010," he said.

The Obama administration has assembled a panel led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine to review NASA's commercial space program.

The current plan is to complete construction of the ISS next year, retire the shuttles and create new vehicles that can fly to the space station and other destinations within the solar system.

But funding for the follow-on program has been cut from $108 billion to $81.5 billion between 2010 and 2020, the year targeted year for the first post-Apollo lunar landing.

Last week, members of a presidential panel reviewing the U.S. passenger space program said unless changes are made to the program, a lunar landing would not happen until the mid 2020s at the earliest under current budget forecasts.

The panel, which is set to submit its report by August 31, has also been looking at whether to extend the life of the space station beyond its expected shutdown date of 2015.

In addition to its scientific applications, the ISS could serve as a market to stimulate commercial space development, Reuters cited panel board member Jeff Greason, co-founder and CEO of XCOR Aerospace, as saying.

NASA plans to host a workshop in Houston on Thursday for firms interested in collaborating to develop commercial passenger space services.

Companies expressing interest include SpaceX, Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boeing Co., Airborne Systems, Tether Applications, Retro Aerospace, Emergent Space Technologies, Davidson Technologies, and Paragon Space Development Corp.   Participation is only open to U.S.-based companies.


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