August 18, 2006

2 Firms Picked for Private Spaceship Job

WASHINGTON - NASA on Friday picked two companies - both recovering from different failures - to develop a new commercial spaceship that would eventually resupply the international space station.

One company, Rocketplane-Kistler of Oklahoma City, has a long aerospace technical record but is just emerging from bankruptcy. The other company, Space X of El Segundo, Calif., is funded by the internet tycoon behind PayPal but had a flaming failure in its initial rocket launch earlier this year.

NASA plans to give the two companies nearly $500 million in "seed money" over the next five years for each to develop and test launch new spaceships. The deal would not only make the nation's space agency a regular customer, it would also give the two companies a big start in getting their rocket business going for other private uses, including space tourism.

The two proposals are quite different. Rocketplane-Kistler's XP Spaceplane would be a completely reusable launch and land over land. Space X would launch its teardrop Dragon capsules on top of its Falcon rockets, which now liftoff from Pacific islands and land in water. Both would use a combination of liquid oxygen and souped-up kerosene as fuel.

Scott Horowitz, NASA's exploration chief who made the decision, said the two companies' recent setbacks weren't a problem because failure and high risk are part of the rocket business and the key is how you recover.

"In some cases, failure is a good thing to have on your record because that learning is behind you," Horowitz said at a late Friday press conference.