* $50 million stimulus funds earmarked for new program
* U.S. dependent on Russia for rides to space after 2010
* Aspiring spaceship operators invited to meeting Thursday
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug 10 (Reuters) - NASA plans to use $50 million of federal economic stimulus funds to seed development of commercial passenger transportation service to space, agency officials said on Monday.
Aspiring spaceship operators will have 45 days to submit proposals, which will be competitively evaluated. Awards for the Commercial Crew Development program are expected to be announced before the end of September.
The United States is retiring its fleet of space shuttles next year after seven more missions to complete construction of the $100 billion International Space Station, which orbits about 225 miles (360 km) above Earth.
After that, the United States plans to buy rides for astronauts to and from the station from Russia, one of the 16 nations involved in the station program.
NASA is spending $500 million to help two U.S. firms, Space Exploration Technologies, a privately held company known as SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corp ORB.N, develop rockets and capsules to deliver cargo to the station.
SpaceX’s contract includes an option to upgrade its Dragon cargo ship for passenger service. The company has said it needs $300 million, most of which would be used to develop a launch escape system for the crew.
“It’s a little disappointing that (the new program) is only $50 million,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk told Reuters. “Fifty million is what it costs for one seat on the (Russian) Soyuz.”
Nevertheless Musk hailed the 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 White House has convened a panel, headed by former Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) chief Norm Augustine, to review NASA’s human space program. The current plan is to finish the station next year, retire the shuttles and develop new vehicles that can travel to the space station as well as to the moon and other destinations in the solar system.
Funding for the follow-on program has been scaled back to $81.5 billion from $108 billion between 2010 and 2020, the year pegged for the first post-Apollo moon landing.
Members of a presidential panel reviewing the country’s human space program said last week that given current budget forecasts and no changes in the program, a moon landing would not occur until the mid 2020s at the earliest.
The panel, which is scheduled to make its report by Aug. 31, also has been mulling extending the life of the space station beyond its projected shut-down date of 2015.
In addition to scientific uses, having a station in orbit will serve as a market to stimulate commercial space development, said board member Jeff Greason, the co-founder and head of XCOR Aerospace.
NASA plans to hold a workshop in Houston on Thursday for companies interested in partnering to develop commercial passenger service to space.
Firms expressing interest in the program include Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Airborne Systems, SpaceX, Boeing Co (BA.N), Tether Applications, Retro Aerospace, Emergent Space Technologies, Davidson Technologies, and Paragon Space Development Corp.
The competition is only open to U.S. firms. (Editing by Jane Sutton and Phil Stewart)