Private spaceships could be safe enough to transport astronauts to the space station, a group of 24 former NASA spaceflyers told Congress in an open letter this week.
The astronauts argue in favor of a new plan by President Barack Obama to encourage commercial companies to build spacecraft capable of replacing the space shuttles as NASA's means to reach the International Space Station.
"We believe that the private sector, working in partnership with NASA, can safely develop and operate crewed space vehicles to low Earth orbit," the astronauts wrote.
In favor of private spaceships
The letter, sent to members of Congress including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Maryland) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), was signed by former astronauts such as Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart and Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.
Former space shuttle flyer John "Mike" Lounge, another signatory, said the letter was motivated in part as a response to critics of the Obama administration plan who argue that spaceships built by private companies would not be safe enough to trust for flying NASA astronauts.
"It was a reaction to some of the letters you've seen out there – to kind of show there is another opinion among people who have flown in space," Lounge told SPACE.com. He said private companies are just as capable as NASA of designing safe, reliable spacecraft – in fact, he pointed out, all NASA spacecraft have been built by commercial companies, simply contracted by NASA.
"The main thing we were trying to make a clear statement on, was that the safety of a system isn't so much a function of who owns it, so much as what it is, and that simple systems are safer than complex ones, and simple missions are safer than complex missions," Lounge said.
In the letter, the astronauts point out that the U.S. Air Force routinely depends on commercial rockets to launch satellites critical to national security. Furthermore, commercial rockets such as the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 have proven their reliability over dozens of successful launches.
"Commercial space workers and managers care about safety just as much as those working at NASA," the astronauts wrote. "Many commercial space workers have come from our Nation's space program and have deep historical knowledge and understanding of the safety issues for human spaceflight, and former astronauts are deeply involved in the engineering, manufacture, and eventual operations of commercial crew vehicles."
NASA's new direction
The Obama plan for space got a new boost today when the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation committee passed a NASA authorization bill largely based on the new proposal. The bill includes funding to encourage the building of private spaceships, and also endorses President Obama's plan for NASA to focus on designing more ambitious heavy-lift rockets to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to an asteroid and Mars.
Finally, the bill added funding for a third and final space shuttle mission in 2011 before the three-orbiter fleet is retired for good.
Some criticized the new bill because it decreased the money allocated for commercial space from President Obama's original proposal. Instead of about $3.3 billion for private spaceships over the next three years, as President Obama requested, the new bill offers only $1.6 billion over that same time period. Some lawmakers are proposing an amendment to add back some of the missing funds for commercial spaceflight.
Lounge said the key elements of the Obama plan are promising.
"I think obviously there's something broken with the traditional approach because we are faced with this gap of U.S. capability" to fly to space after the shuttles retire, he said. "So we've got to do something differently. This is a way to leverage private company innovation and investment in a way that lets NASA put its limited resources into the complicated missions."
He argued against critics who say the new plan is a step down for U.S. preeminence in space exploration.
"The new direction is not a retreat from human spaceflight – it is the future of human spaceflight," Lounge said. "If we don't find a way to do this in a robust way that's affordable, that's open to new technology, open to commercial participation, even open to international participation – I see no way that it's sustainable."