A U.S. presidential commission says the government should shift many of its space tasks to private industry so the government can focus on human space exploration.
President Bush has launched a plan to return American astronauts to the moon in 10 to 15 years and eventually send them to Mars. He created an expert commission in January to recommend how to carry out this policy without significantly enlarging the U.S. space budget.
After months of hearings and deliberation, the panel's recommends greater involvement by the private sector. Commission Chairman Pete Aldridge says the commercial sector should develop the capability to relieve the U.S. space agency NASA of lesser missions like cargo and robotic launches so NASA can concentrate on putting humans into outer space.
"We believe if NASA can focus on those very difficult, high risk, clearly not money-making missions and look for things the private sector can do in helping NASA focus its attention on the real exploration stuff and take NASA's attention off the more operational, mundane things, that's what we'd like to do," he said.
Mr. Aldridge's commission says a robust commercial space industry would lead the world in technological innovation and contribute to U.S. economic growth.
Under the commission's vision, NASA's bureaucracy would get much leaner. The panel recommends transforming the agency's regional centers into government-funded research and development units operated by universities, non-profit groups or industry. NASA already supports one such outfit - the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a University of California lab that designed and operates the rovers now successfully exploring Mars.
But some observers worry that commercialization of portions of the U.S. space program might lead to increased failures. They note that private contractors were involved in the loss of a spacecraft as it approached Mars in 1999. Private aerospace firms also operated the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon return from orbit last year. American University space policy expert Howard McCurdy says layers of private subcontractors complicate space missions.
"I sense something of a contradiction here," said Howard McCurdy. "You're going to contract everything out and then the contract organizations are going to contract everything out to a robust space industry. At some point you start making things so complex that they don't work."
In addition, some space scientists fear that private companies might not be interested in mounting astronomical missions like the extremely successful Hubble Space Telescope, because they might not be profitable.
But NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe says he accepts the presidential commission's recommendations. He notes that his agency's reorganization has already begun. "We want to get on with this and we are about that business now," he said. "We are determined to transform the agency and our way of doing business to put these goals within reach."
To encourage private space entrepreneurs, the presidential commission recommends that the U.S. Congress offer prizes for scientists who develop space missions or create useful technology.
Currently, a U.S. foundation is offering $10 million to any private group that can orbit Earth. Next Monday, a California airplane designer will attempt to launch a piloted rocket from the Mojave Desert to an altitude of 100 kilometers as a step toward meeting that goal.