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NASA Official Sees Role in Space for Private Companies - 2004-10-01


The head of the U.S. space agency, NASA, says private enterprise will play an important role in space in the future. While visiting California, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe watched the launch of the privately funded SpaceShipOne into suborbital space Wednesday. The official says private companies will take over many logistical tasks, allowing his agency to "push the envelope" of space exploration.

Mr. O'Keefe says NASA spends too much time and effort on what he calls "milk runs," for example, ferrying supplies to the international space station. He says private contractors could perform this work, leaving NASA free to focus on research and exploration.

Then, he says, his agency need not worry so much about spaceship specifications, or what a ship looks like.

"Who cares. I don't care if they fly it up there in a Dixie cup. You know, if it arrives and it gets to the space station and it meets the provisioning requirements, who gives a toot how it got there."

He says that in the future, private entrepreneurs will take the risk and NASA will pay for their services after they perform them.

Wednesday, Mr. O'Keefe watched in the California desert as a private space team led by designer Burt Rutan sent a manned rocket past the edge of space and safely back again. The craft, called SpaceShipOne, was anything but conventional. Powered by nitrous oxide mixed with rubber, it looks like a combination airplane and rocket.

Mr. Rutan's team, including pilot Mike Melvill, was repeating a feat that it first accomplished in June. NASA official O'Keefe, speaking with reporters in Los Angeles, said the team is using existing technology in a novel way, paving the way for tourism in space.

"What they're doing is making it accessible for people," he said. "They broke the "no longer for the elite" barrier."

The official recalls the rapid progress in civil aviation after the first powered flight by the Wright brothers in 1903. In its early days, flight was for the rich and daring. Today, he says, millions fly in airplanes. He sees the same kind of development coming, at a much more rapid pace, in the field of space travel.

Mr. O'Keefe says NASA will continue to play a central role in exploring space, but he says so will people like Mr. Rutan and Mr. Melvill and their financial backer, Microsoft's cofounder, billionaire Paul Allen. He praised the team's determination and creativity.

"It's fantastic to see," he said. "They are the latest example among an absolute pantheon of endless examples in American entrepreneurial history of people who are persistent, and at the same time, highly professional."

The NASA official says interest in space right now is "huge." Traffic on his agency's Web site - www. Nasa.gov -- is up more than five times its previous high levels. The site received 15 billion inquiries, or computer "hits," in the past nine months. He says interest in the Mars Rover started the trend in January, and by the time of the Cassini mission to study Saturn's moons and rings in June, NASA received one million computer inquiries in a single hour.

The agency has ambitious plans, in addition to its ongoing robotic probes exploring the solar system. In January, President Bush announced a plan to return humans to the moon by 2020, then use the moon as a base to travel to Mars and beyond. The NASA official says private initiatives like Mr. Rutan's will allow his agency to keep focused on its core mission, exploring space and educating the public.

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