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NASA Looking At Private Launch Companies For Cargo, Crew Launches

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 Station.

"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 website.

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 2010.

FMI: www.nasa.gov, www.spacex.com, www.spacedev.com, www.rocketplane.com, www.airlaunchllc.com, www.boeing.com

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