Commercial Space Flight: NASA May Get Onboard

On the 40th anniversary of the successful U.S. mission to the moon, proud celebrations took place to recognize the accomplishments by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. There was even a well-timed space mission, with NASA's Space Shuttle blasting off to carry additional gear to the International Space Station, the research facility that orbits 220 miles above the Earth's surface.

Still, the NASA of today is struggling to live up to its storied past. The Shuttle program, for example, has been plagued by chronic cost overruns and delays. The Shuttle will be retired next year, even though it will be at least five years before the successor Ares rocket will be available to take American astronauts into space. NASA faces the humbling prospect of hitching rides to the space station with the Russians for the next few years. "The Space Shuttle was looked at as a great advance, but it never lived up to expectations," said Jeffrey Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut and professor of astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The agency looks headed for a course correction. The White House has set up a blue-ribbon commission to help decide the future direction of manned flight. Headed by Norman Augustine, a former chief executive of defense contractor Lockheed Martin (LMT), the group plans to deliver several broad options to the Obama Administration by the end of August. Augustine, in a press briefing earlier this month, said the commission will "take a fresh independent look and go where the facts lead."

refocusing NASA on long-term R&D?

One option under serious consideration is whether NASA should tap the private sector more actively. Since its founding, the agency has done the heavy lifting in space exploration largely by itself—conceiving of missions, designing rockets, and executing flights. Companies such as Boeing (BA), Alliant Techsystems (ATK), and Lockheed Martin simply built spacecraft to NASA's specs. Some experts argue that NASA should lean on private companies more heavily, perhaps to design rockets or execute such mundane missions as shuttling supplies up to the International Space Station. "The commercial sector could have a much bigger role," says Keith Cowling, editor of a Web site called NASA Watch, which monitors agency projects. "But NASA has to be willing to give up its monopoly on manned space flight. And that's the big question."

NASA declined to comment specifically. But Augustine has said his commission is looking at the prospect of greater private sector involvement. The idea is that NASA could accomplish more with its existing $17.3 billion budget if it could focus on the most important issues, such as setting ambitious goals and investing in long-term research and development and executing the goal of putting a man on Mars.

Private sector players are certainly eager to get involved. There are opportunities to profit from an expanded role in space exploration. The companies also argue that competitive bidding for NASA contracts will bring down the costs for tasks such as carrying astronauts and supplies to the space station. "If you look at any other mode of transporting goods and people, on planes or trains, most people would say that these things should be done by the commercial sector," says Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, a commercial space flight company founded in 2002.

one-third the cost per mission?

SpaceX is participating in a pilot program that may help determine how much the private sector gets involved with NASA. Musk's company and Orbital Sciences (ORB) have received $500 million to see if they can develop technology to deliver cargo to the space station. The two companies need to prove their capability with three demonstration flights by the end of 2010. If they're successful, NASA will pay each company $1.6 billion to run 12 cargo missions to the space station through 2015. The $133 million cost per flight would be less than one-third NASA's cost for such missions.

Private space companies say such arrangements are necessary for NASA. Without cheaper ways to get goods to the space station, the agency may have to let the research facility spiral and burn after the U. S. completes its obligation to maintain it through 2016. "This is the only way NASA can afford to both service the station and go back to the moon," says John Gedmark, president of the Commercial Space Flight Federation, a trade group for the industry. NASA says no decision has been made on the future of the international project.

Musk is already looking beyond ferrying supplies into space. In a presentation to the Augustine Commission, he argued that SpaceX could be ready to transport people to the space station within two years. "We are close to making crew transport a reality," he says. Musk estimates that NASA will pay the Russian space agency about $50 million for each American astronaut. "That money could be better applied here at home—and we could do it for a lot less."

David Hastings, a professor of astronautics at MIT, says he hopes that a commercial space industry does emerge. If companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences can figure out a way to profit by helping the U.S. space effort, he believes it will help NASA push farther into space. "We are on the cusp of some historic shifts," he says.