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Beyond NASA: The push to privatize spaceflight

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2005


Not far from bustling Los Angeles International Airport and the glistening office towers of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other aerospace giants sits a cluster of squat buildings that may hold a key to the future of manned spaceflight.

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Inside the main facility, whimsical trash cans sport nose cones and rocket fins. A Segway electric scooter shares an expansive shop floor with segments of rocket bodies. In one corner, inside a "clean room," engineers piece together a rocket motor. Welcome to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Think dotcom trailblazing with Buck Rogers technology. This upstart and others like it represent the potential of privatized spaceflight. "By the middle of this century, if it's not overwhelmingly private, we've really failed," says Elon Musk, who heads the company.

At a time when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) struggles to return its aging shuttle fleet to service and realign itself to implement President Bush's blueprint for sending astronauts to the moon and beyond, several companies and interest groups are pursuing their own vision for putting humans into space more cheaply. "If we drive down the cost of transportation in space, we can do great things," Mr. Musk insists.

The goal: to loft people and cargo at one-tenth the current cost. Building reusable rockets is only the first step. Industry sources say NASA, too, will have to buy services and hardware - at lower cost - from a broader cast of aerospace characters than the traditional players. And while taking the lead in high-risk human exploration of space, the government also needs to build an infrastructure in orbit - such as the space station - from which private companies could launch missions and conduct research.

"This is an optimistic vision," acknowledges George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society in Washington, D.C. "But when you look at manned spaceflight at a broader level beyond the president's space-exploration vision, that's when it really gets exciting."

Even the president's directive to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 could help privatize spaceflight.

"We want to go about space exploration in a more sustainable way" than the Apollo program did, says Brant Sponberg, who heads NASA's awards program. "We want to bring along other sectors of America with us; this shouldn't be a NASA-only activity. My ultimate hope is that when we're sending robotic landers to the moon early next decade, there might be some robotic landers that don't have the NASA insignia on them."

Slowly, that scenario is beginning to unfold.

In May, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration published guidelines for granting permits to companies wanting to test reusable suborbital rockets. The move follows the FAA's February publication of draft guidelines governing crews and passengers in private spacecraft. The FAA's authority to regulate the industry - first via guidelines, later with binding regulations - came through the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which was signed into law in December.

The measure represents a significant step forward, says Carole Flores, manager of the licensing and safety division in the FAA's office of the associate administrator for commercial space transportation. It allows for government oversight without forcing the companies involved to first endure a drawn-out process of crafting formal regulations.

Ms. Flores says her division had been anticipating some form of involvement in the human-spaceflight business since Dennis Tito bought a trip aboard a Russian rocket and became the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2001. Studies indicated tourism would be the prime market initially for space travel outside government exploration efforts. But "we had a hard time convincing some people that this was real," she says.

Then last fall, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne became the first private manned craft to reach space. That put space tourism "right up in front of people," Flores says.

In February, a dozen players formed the Personal Spaceflight Federation, which aims to set industry standards and help shape federal policies on privatized spaceflight. Among the founders was Peter Diamandis, whose X Prize Foundation amassed the $10 million purse that prompted the privatized space race that Mr. Rutan won.