July 10, 2011

Shuttle Program End Provides Private Opportunities

While the approaching retirement of the space shuttle has NASA employees and residents of the areas most vital to the program concerned for their economic futures, it could present a tremendous opportunity for the three private-sector companies currently developing spacecraft for the US aeronautics agency, Reuters reporter Irene Klotz reported on Friday.

"¨According to Klotz, the three companies currently working on commercial space taxis designed to deliver American astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) are The Boeing Company of Chicago, Illinois; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California; and the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) of Sparks, Nevada.

"¨"Boeing and SpaceX, owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, propose capsule-style ships that descend to Earth on parachutes, rather than glide like the shuttle to a runway landing," the Reuters reporter said. "Sierra Nevada is working on a shuttle-like winged vehicle called the Dream Chaser."

"¨She notes that each of the three companies' spacecrafts will be designed to carry as many as seven astronauts or a mix of people and payload. Klotz reports that NASA has invested a total of $247 million in the three companies--money that is being used "to help pay development costs," she says, adding that all of them "hope to win work flying crews to the space station."

"¨While many are treating the privatization of NASA's spacecraft as a new, groundbreaking method of design and engineering, former astronaut and current SpaceX representative Garrett Reisman told Reuters that "it's really not as big of a deal as it's made out to be"¦ NASA has been working with contractors since the very beginning. It was contractors that built the space shuttle and the Apollo rockets. What's really different this time round is something as mundane as contracting--the way the government does business."

"¨"For large programs, NASA, like most federal agencies, traditionally reimburses contractors for all costs and adds bonuses for performance," Klotz continued, adding that "the new commercial model is fixed-priced and milestone-based"--which, Reisman says, gives companies like SpaceX "a real incentive to keep it cost-effective."

"¨The proposed spacecraft wouldn't just be for NASA use, however, as Reuters points that that the corporations would be able to sell seats to tourists, businesses, scientists, researchers, and others.

None of the spacecraft are expected to be ready until at least 2015, and until then, NASA is forced to pay $50 million per seat to hitch rides to the ISS on board Russian-built Soyuz rockets.

"¨"NASA has not yet decided whether it wants to lease new spaceships for its astronauts like a rental car or buy rides like a taxi service," Klotz said, adding that "before buying rides for astronauts, NASA is testing the commercial concept with cargo deliveries" with the SpaceX-built Dragon cargo capsule, which debuted last November.


"¨On the Net: