* $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 (Reuters) - 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 panel said.
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 (LMT.N).
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 into space.
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 Development Corp.
“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)