Leading space entrepreneurs said they are ready, willing and able to fill the U.S. spaceflight gap after NASA retires its space shuttles this year.
They confidently predicted that commercial spaceships could fly both cargo and humans into low-Earth orbit for lower cost and by about 2014, or at least several years sooner, than NASA's original plan based on the now-canceled Constellation program.
The space industry executives hailed the Obama administration's proposal to devote $6 billion over the next five years toward commercial spaceflight. It opens the door for potential trips to the moon on commercial vehicles, they added.
That "historic decision" could create an estimated 5,000 jobs in the United States and help NASA avoid paying billions of dollars to Russia for rides to the space station, said Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, during a Monday teleconference.
Still, Alexander and others took time to address one of the main doubts in the minds of critics ? whether commercial spaceflight can provide safe access to space.
Some critics and members of Congress have expressed their own concerns about the safety of untried commercial spaceflight.
But space industry executives said safety is of the utmost importance to them.
Elon Musk, founder of the commercial spaceflight venture Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), likened the issue to how airline travelers fly today on Southwest Airlines or Virgin America without a second thought because safety has become a universal standard for airlines. He and other space entrepreneurs said that they too must hold to the highest safety standards lest they lose out to competitors.
"Safety-wise, we are the least able to afford mishaps," said Robert Bigelow, head of the Las Vegas, Nev.-based firm Bigelow Aerospace, which is building inflatable space habitats and has already launched two prototypes.
By contrast, he said that NASA's government program has been able to shrug off disasters more easily throughout its history.
The space industry firms represented in the teleconference have all aimed for the highest human safety standards set by NASA or Russia's Soyuz program ? the latter arguably having a better track record than the space shuttle, they said. Since shuttle flights began in 1981, NASA has suffered two disasters that have killed 14 astronauts.
"I think that for people to say that we here in the U.S. have done a great job on safety with the old way is just wrong," said computer game developer and entrepreneur Richard Garriott, who paid $30 million to fly to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz as a space tourist.
That spacecraft, he said, has a "100-fold difference" in its safety record compared to the space shuttle. Garriott is also the son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, who flew on the Skylab space station and an early space shuttle flight.
SpaceX and its competitors touted that, with appropriate funding, they could start flying U.S. astronauts into space around 2014. It would cost less than NASA pays to fly astronauts aboard Russia's Soyuz craft to the space station.
NASA currently pays about $51 million a seat to send astronauts to space on Russian spacecraft. But first the companies want to establish a safety record with many unmanned launches.
Moon or Mars in the next decade
The space entrepreneurs all painted an optimistic picture of how commercial spaceflight could look by the year 2020. They envisioned a number of companies providing commercial crew transport to low-Earth orbit, and a "really well-used ISS" that is taken advantage of as a government lab, according to Musk of SpaceX.
Bigelow noted that his space hotel company plans to pursue an "aggressive schedule" that would launch several private space stations within the next decade.
But the group also looked forward to commercial spaceflight beyond the confines of low-Earth orbit.
"By 2020 you'll have seen private citizens circumnavigate the moon," said Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, the only company currently selling space tourist flights to orbit.
If that still sounds dreamy, consider that Space Adventures is offering trips around the moon aboard Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft for $100 million per ride.
Commercial spaceflight could even realize one of the most cherished dreams of humans setting foot on another planet, if the space industry drives down costs and boosts innovation hand-in-hand with NASA.
"I'm going to go out on a limb and say that by 2020 there will be serious plans to go to Mars with people," Musk said.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that space tourism firm Space Adventures has not yet booked a private moon flight, but is still offering the service to potential customers.
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