* $5 billion eyed to seed commercial rocket ships
* Panel suggests scrapping NASA's Ares moon rocket
* Space station extension strongly endorsed
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Oct 22 The United States
could get astronauts back into space faster and spend less
money by scrapping the Ares rocket designed to succeed the
shuttle and turning instead to public-private space taxis, a
presidential advisory panel said on Thursday.
The space shuttles are due to be retired next year and the
replacement vehicle will not be ready until 2017 or 2018, the
But it added in a new report that with a government
investment of about $5 billion in a public-private space taxi
program, the country could resume launching astronauts into
space in about 2016.
The Obama administration convened the panel of 10 aerospace
executives, former astronauts, scientists and engineers to
assess NASA's plan for human space exploration and to suggest
alternatives to the moon-focused initiative championed but not
fully funded by the previous president and Congress.
"I think there is argument that it was a sensible program
to begin with. There is a real question as to whether it's a
sensible program today," said space review panel chairman Norm
Augustine, the former chief executive of Lockheed Martin
The exploration initiative known as Constellation is
roughly $3 billion a year short of budget projections, a gap
NASA has attempted to bridge by delaying development work. The
Ares rocket, topped by a crew capsule called Orion, would be
used to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and
to the moon, which would be used as base for missions farther
NASA currently spends about half of its $18 billion annual
budget on human space programs.
It has spent four years and $350 million so far developing
a prototype Ares 1 rocket to succeed the shuttle, and its test
flight is scheduled for Tuesday.
But the advisory panel projected the Ares 1 booster rocket
would not be ready to serve as a launcher for space station
crews until 2017 -- well after the outpost is scheduled to be
removed from orbit. Even if the International Space Station is
extended beyond 2015, as the panel strongly recommends, money
diverted to continuing the station would delay the Ares rocket
debut to 2018 or later, the panel said.
"The (schedule) slippage has caused a mismatch between what
Ares 1 is needed for and what it's going to be able to do,"
Augustine told reporters.
Instead, the committee suggests the government invest $5
billion in space taxis created by private industry. NASA would
have oversight on safety issues.
"It is very clear that no commercial entity could raise the
risk capital to build a rocket and capsule and recover the
costs in our lifetime," said committee member Ed Crawley, a
professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"But it is clear that if a substantial fraction of the
development cost were carried by the government that there is
likely to be a market that would allow the operating costs to
be amortized over various uses," he said.
Currently, NASA designs spaceships and retains ownership
but contracts out for manufacturing.
In addition to ferrying U.S. and other countries'
astronauts to and from the space station, which orbits about
225 miles (360 km) above Earth, commercial space taxis could
fly researchers, tourists and payloads.
Several firms, including California-based Space Exploration
Technologies, are already working on space capsules and rockets
to carry passengers.
NASA is expected to award $50 million next month for study
contracts for commercial passenger space transportation. The
money comes from federal economic stimulus funds. Bidders
include Boeing (BA.N), Space Exploration Technologies, Orbital
Sciences Corp ORB.N, Sierra Nevada Corp and Paragon Space
"A new competition with adequate incentives should be open
to all U.S. aerospace companies. This would allow NASA to focus
on more challenging roles, including human exploration beyond
low-Earth orbit," panel members wrote in their report, which is
now in the hands of NASA and the White House.
(Editing by Jane Sutton and Peter Cooney)