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Newsday July 13, 2005

Failures and delays at U.S. space agency have opened the door for businesses to enter space

By James Bernstein

As the space shuttle prepares to return to orbit, NASA is already thinking about Mars and moon missions, handing out contracts yesterday to companies designing vehicles to reach the planets.

But, though its vision might be bold, during the past 20 years NASA has lost much of its luster - and much of the market it once held exclusively to create business opportunities in space. That's primarily because the shuttle proved to be the very two things ardent government promoters promised it would not be: unreliable and expensive.

Now NASA faces competition from at least a dozen private companies that have built up an industry estimated to be $100 billion, offering everything from launch services to lunch in space.

"The giggle factor has gone away," Joe Huwaldt, the chief engineer for Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Limited Inc., said yesterday. "When we say to people we can do this, they don't laugh anymore."

Rocketplane says it will begin operating private space flights in early 2007, which might make it the first private company offering space flights to the public. "A lot of companies have been striving to privatize space," said Huwaldt. "This has been due to frustration over the lack of progress" by the space shuttle. "Also, the feeling is the time has come. The technology has matured."

Two space shuttle disasters - the explosion of Challenger shortly after takeoff in January 1986 and the breakup upon re-entry of Columbia in February 2003 - in addition to frequent delays of scheduled launches and high costs have caused private companies, satellite builders prime among them, to turn away from NASA and look to private industry.

"It [the shuttle] certainly didn't live up to its promises," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

NASA plans to end the space shuttle program toward the end of this decade, when it hopes to have a crew exploration vehicle ready to take astronauts to the moon and beyond.

Even as NASA engineers made last-minute preparations to launch the shuttle Discovery, the agency's headquarters in Washington announced yesterday it had awarded a $28-million contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. to continue its work on the crew exploration vehicle. NASA is expected to award the same amount to a team of Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp., which is also working on a crew vehicle design.

But private space entrepreneurs believe they are well on their way to the cosmos without the aid of NASA.

Last October, Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne became the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet (considered the edge of space) twice within 14 days, winning a competition for a $10-million prize put together by private space enthusiasts.

SpaceShipOne is owned by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The competition placed even more focus on private space efforts, including those by companies that are promising to make space tourism commonplace.

One of them, Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif., was started by businessman Elon Musk in 2002, using his own money. Musk is trying to make space flight affordable and profitable. Dianne Molina, the company's marketing manager, said Space Exploration already has six firm contracts to launch satellites.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, has inked a deal with Mojave Aerospace to build five "Virgin Galactic spaceliners" to carry passengers into space in the next three years. Branson also has talked about building a hotel in space.

As private space efforts grow and the shuttle program winds down, many in and outside the space industry are asking whether the shuttle was worth it all. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which monitors space programs, said the shuttle taught an important lesson.

"I think it was important in teaching us humility," Pike said. "It taught us how difficult this stuff is because the shuttle turned out to be a lot more difficult than anybody thought. It's too easy to get into trouble and too hard to get out."

 


Copyright 2005, Newsday Inc.