Private Supply Ships Vital for Space Vision, NASA Chief Says

LEAGUECITY, TX - Commercial space station cargo ships, crew ferries and otherspacecraft will prove a vital cog in NASA's engine for future spaceexploration, the agency's top official said Tuesday.

"We want tobe able to buy these services from American industry," NASA chief MichaelGriffin told American Astronautical Society (AAS) during its annual conferencehere, adding that the first space station resupply proposals are expected thisfall. "It will not be government business as usual."

Commercialcargo and crew ships to the International Space Station (ISS) are just the tipof what Griffin dubbed 'the dawn of the true space age,' an era which couldinclude private fueling depots in low-Earth orbit to aid NASA's plan to returnastronauts to the Moon.

"It isexactly the type of enterprise which should be left to industry and the[commercial] marketplace," Griffin said of the fuel depot.

Relying onadditional commercial space services rather than its own infrastructure may bea boon for NASA.

"NASAcannot succeed alone in pursuing the exploration vision," said Courtney Stadd,a former NASA chief of staff and White House liaison, adding that the agencyalready has its hands full sustaining the ISS while working to develop new cargoand human-rated spacecraft and rockets for Moon and Mars missions. "It's abreathtakingly full dance card."

The agencyshould embrace partnerships with commercial industry and the internationalcommunity because "any misstep in human spaceflight could spell a very longhiatus in human-driven exploration in the U.S.," Stadd said.

NASA hasalready eateninto its ISS research budget to fund the station's completion and the developmentof the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) - the shuttle's planned successor.

"We canafford to build the station and finish its assembly, or we can afford to usewhat's there [for research]," Griffin said. "But we cannot afford tosimultaneously do both."

NASA'sthree remaining space shuttles are slated for retirement by 2010, during whichtime agency officials hope to launch 19 flights- 18 of them to the ISS for station construction or resupply. The additionalshuttle mission is earmarked to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

"Thestation is a great proving ground for exploration," said Bill Gerstenmaier,NASA's associate administrator of space operations, adding that by the time theISS is complete it will have a mass of about 800,000 pounds (362,873 kilograms)- roughly the same as a potential Mars mission under the space agency'sexploration vision. "We've learned a lot about operating internationally and alot about continuous operation, all of which applies directly to exploration."


The stationis currently about the size of a three-bedroom home and only half-built as NASAworks to resume space shuttle flights.

NASAorbiters are the only vehicles capable of launching the hefty ISS componentsawaiting launch at Kennedy Space Center, though a steady stream of Russianspacecraft have kept the orbital platform manned and supplied.

The shuttleAtlantis's STS-121 mission - NASA's second post-Columbia accident test flightafter STS-114 this pastsummer - is currently expected to fly no earlier than May 2006. But it will bethe flight after that, STS-115, which will once again resume ISS construction.

Initial ISSshuttle flights will deliver truss and solar array segments required to providethe power necessary to support larger components such as Japan's Kiboexperiment module and the European Space Agency's Columbus module.

NASA'sinternational partners would prefer to launch their modules earlier, butbecause of the truss and power logistics, it has proven difficult to move themearlier in the ISS launch manifest, explained John Elbon, Boeing vice presidentand ISS program manager for NASA systems.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.