Agency Comes Full Circle
Although NASA initially
scoffed at the notion of private spacecraft, the space agency is
now exploring the possibility of sending cargo and crews into orbit
aboard spacecraft currently in development by companies such as
SpaceX, AirLaunch LLC, and SpaceHab.
The space agency issued its long-awaited announcement Tuesday,
seeking firms interested in taking over delivery duties presently
handled by the space shuttle. With that program expected to be
retired in 2010 -- and with the shuttle fleet still grounded until
at least Q2 of 2006 -- NASA needs another alternative to launch its
satellites, as well as ferry cargo to the International Space
"Certainly this is an opportunity for the new space companies,"
said Jim Banke, head of Florida operations for The Space
Foundation, to Reuters. "They’ve been lobbying NASA hard for
something like this for years."
By utilizing private spacecraft, the agency could reduce its
reliance on the three remaining space shuttles before the 2010
deadline -- freeing up the shuttles to handle other missions for
NASA. The agency could also chose to retire the aging shuttles even
earlier, to save funds needed for the development of the
next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle.
It is also conceivable private spacecraft could be used by NASA
to haul people into orbit during the two-year lag between the
shuttle's expected retirement, and the anticipated 2012 first
flight of the CEV.
Should a private space vehicle become available in the next
several years, NASA could even find itself in the enviable position
of having multiple options for sending cargo and crews into orbit:
the shuttle (or CEV), private spacecraft, or -- as was recently reported in
Aero-News -- the Russian Soyuz.
"We’re excited about this opportunity," said SpaceX's
Larry Williams. The California-based company -- which, after two delays, is planning
its debut rocket launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific this
month -- is competing with other outfits such as
t/Space, SpaceDev, Constellation Services International, AirLaunch
LLC, SpaceHab, Andrews Space, Rocketplane Ltd., Universal Space
Lines and Bigelow Aerospace, according to NASA's procurement
Established industry heavyweights such as Boeing and Lockheed
Martin are said to also be in the fray, but have so far kept
silence about their possible plans.
"As long as it’s a level playing field, we’re open
to compete with them any time and anywhere," said Williams.
Companies have until February 10 to submit their transport
service proposals to NASA, with contracts expected to be awarded in
May. NASA has earmarked $500 million to pay for the program through