Commercial Companies Ready to Blaze New Trails in Space
An Orbital Sciences Minotaur 4 Lite rocket, the first of its kind, launches on April 22, 2010 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in this image.
Credit: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Andrew Satran

Commercial companies are ready to take on more of the government's space needs, and more encouraged now that President Barack Obama has detailed his vision for future American spaceflight.

Space industry leaders said this month that they are ready to transport cargo and crews to low-Earth orbit, as well as taking on more Earth observation work and communication satellite operations.

The meeting was held at the 29th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., shortly before Obama's April 15 space policy speech in Florida, which highlighted a new NASA proposal to rely more heavily on commercial spaceflight abilities, revive the agency's cancelled Orion spacecraft and send astronauts to a nearby asteroid by 2025 before moving on to Mars in the 2030s.

The new plan

One of the most high profile opportunities for private companies to take over government work is the transportation of astronauts to the International Space Station.

In his new plan for NASA, President Obama has pushed for the commercial sector to develop spacecraft to carry crews to the orbital laboratory. A number of companies, including the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation, have said they are potentially interested.

"We certainly can find a way to get humans safely to low-Earth orbit," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

That company has already successfully won a NASA contract for $1.6 billion to transport cargo to the space station aboard its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. Another firm, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, is building its own Taurus 2 rockets and unmanned Cygnus spaceships in a $1.9 billion contract to haul supplies for NASA as well.

Because of NASA grants to develop these spacecraft, Shotwell said her company was able to successfully design a system that is now bringing in revenue beyond just its NASA work. SpaceX has already booked 32 flights on its Falcon 9 booster and seven launches of its smaller Falcon 1 rocket, she said.

The first Falcon 9 rocket is targeted to launch on a test flight on May 8.

"There's no question that we've found success in the marketplace largely because of the investment that the government has provided," Shotwell said.

Good news

Many commercial players are encouraged by the increased funding for private industry space ventures in the 2011 NASA budget proposal.

"Orbital is a very strong supporter of NASA's new direction that includes a component that focuses on commercial crew opportunities," said Dave Thompson, Orbital co-founder and CEO.

Orbital has also won a NASA contract to provide eight future unmanned cargo delivery flights to the space station on its Cygnus spacecraft and Taurus II rocket. The company is considering transforming aspects of this system to carry humans.

And besides NASA needs, there are other avenues for possible commercial and government collaboration in space, industry leaders said.

"There are many areas where this model has started to work out a little bit and could prove to work out even more," said Josh Hartman, a senior fellow of Technology & Public Policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He cited fields such as space weather forecasting and space debris monitoring as possible fields where the industry could pitch in even more than it already is.

"The time is right to do this," said Craig P. Weston, president and CEO of U.S. Space LLC, a company that provides satellite communications to the military. "The government really needs to take full advantage of the commercial sector."

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