Companies gear up to plug gap in U.S. spaceflight

Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:10pm EDT

* First commercial space taxi could debut in three years

* NASA wants to insulate spaceflight from politics

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 28 (Reuters) - NASA is counting on four companies to return the United States to space after the shuttle is retired this summer under a program that should help insulate spaceflight from the mercurial winds of politics, NASA managers said Thursday.

The firms -- Boeing (BA.N), Space Exploration Technologies, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin -- will share $269.3 million in NASA funds this year to work on spaceships and supporting technologies needed to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

If successful, the first vehicles could be ready for flight in about three years, though that presumes additional government investment in 2012 and 2013.

The alternative, however, is for the United States to continue to pay Russia for spaceflight services, which cost $51 million per person now and will increase to $63 million a seat in 2014.

"Both NASA and our industry partners are going to have to change the way we do business in order for this program to succeed, but the benefits of this new approach are clear and compelling. It will ensure that U.S. astronauts will be transported to and from the International Space Station on American-based spacecraft, thereby minimizing reliance on foreign systems," said Phil McAlister, NASA's acting director of commercial spaceflight.

"We have seen how tenuous our human space endeavors can be. We cannot have the future of human spaceflight completely dependent on the prevailing political winds or partisan concerns," McAlister added.

Under the new commercial crew initiative, partner companies will be paid fixed amounts when they achieve set milestones, and they will contribute some of their own funds toward development costs. Traditionally, NASA paid its contractors' costs, plus bonus fees.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, founded and led by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is the most advanced of the four, having flown its Falcon 9 rocket twice and a cargo version of its Dragon capsule once.

With its new $75 million investment from NASA, privately owned SpaceX plans to develop an emergency launch escape system and outfit Dragon to carry up to seven passengers.

Boeing, which was awarded $92.3 million, is developing a similar seven-person capsule and plans to announce the capsule's launch vehicle soon.

With its $80 million in NASA funding, privately held Sierra Nevada Corp. wants to finalize the design of its seven-seater winged craft called Dream Chaser.

And Blue Origin, founded by Amazon (AMZN.O) chief Jeff Bezos, will use $22 million in NASA funds for technical studies and tests leading to a design of a seven-person capsule and reusable liquid-fueled boosters.

NASA's investment in commercial companies comes as it prepares to retire the space shuttles after two final missions to the International Space Station. The shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to be launched on Friday to deliver a particle physics experiment and spare parts. Atlantis is slated to fly June 28 with a final load of supplies.

"We as a nation allowed this gap (in human spaceflight) to occur so now we have to live with it," said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. "We as a nation can shorten the gap if we continue to fund commercial programs, if I continue to do my utmost to facilitate their success, so that within the next three or four years -- instead of the next five or six years -- we have a domestic capability to put humans into orbit."

(Editing by Jane Sutton)

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