The U.S. space agency NASA has taken a step to transfer the job of resupplying the International Space Station to the private sector. NASA hopes crews and cargo can fly up on commercial rockets so it can focus on returning astronauts to the moon in the next decade and eventually sending crews to Mars.
NASA has selected two U.S. aerospace companies to participate in the first phase of its new Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
The man leading NASA's effort to explore the moon and Mars, Scott Horowitz, says the goal is to have commercial space firms support the International Space Station after it retires the space shuttle fleet in 2010. "If the commercial sector can do it safely, reliably, and more cost effectively, then it's in our best interest to buy that service. Remember, NASA gets .60 percent of the national budget, so anything we can do to more cost effectively buy a service frees critical resources to do exploration and the other things we desire."
The two aerospace firms NASA has chosen to begin the program are Space Exploration Technologies Corporation and Rocketplane-Kistler. They will share $500 million from NASA and borrow other money to design and build rockets that can be test flown by 2009.
The NASA official overseeing the project, Alan Lindenmoyer, says each company has proposed a two-stage design, with the top stage to separate and deliver cargo and crew to the U.S. segment of the space station. "We hope the project will open new and profitable and growing markets and begin a new era in commercial space," he said.
Scott Horowitz notes that selection of the two firms does not mean that either one or both will be the actual providers of the space station resupply services. He points out that this initial phase of the project is only to demonstrate technology. Horowitz says other firms could have better proposals by the time NASA seeks bids for the actual services in the second phase of the project.
NASA chief Michael Griffin has said his agency will not buy commercial services if ultimately they are not cheaper than what the U.S. government can provide. NASA is developing crew and cargo rockets for its moon and Mars exploration program that can also be used for missions to low Earth orbit, such as space station visits. But Griffin says the agency wants to spare the rockets for long distance exploration if possible.
There will be a two-to-four-year gap between the time the shuttles stop flying and the new NASA spaceships are ready. Commercial aerospace services would ensure that the United States would not have to rely on Russia or other space station partners to carry up crews and equipment, as it had to do during the long hiatus in shuttle flights after the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003.
In the weeks to come, NASA will select the prime contractor for the new crew exploration vehicle.