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September 19, 2009

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NASA turns to private firms in race to space

SOMETIME in the next six years, astronauts bound for the International Space Station may find themselves strapped inside a private commercial spacecraft known as Dragon.

They would take off from a refurbished launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station built by privately held Space Exploration Technologies (known as SpaceX), the same firm that owns the Dragon capsule, its Falcon launch vehicle and the helicopters to pluck the capsule from the sea on its return.

Hiring others to fly crews to the space station is a necessity for the United States, which has shut down manufacturing lines for the 28-year-old space shuttle program.

After two deadly accidents and ballooning operating costs, the shuttles are due to be retired in late 2010 after six more missions to complete construction of the space station, a US$100 billion project involving 16 nations.

Russian rides

Beginning this year, station-bound astronauts will be transported solely by Russia, which sells rides to the US government at about US$50 million a seat. The US space agency NASA plans to develop a new space transport system which, in addition to reaching the space station 360 kilometers above Earth, can travel to the moon and further destinations.

But an independent panel of 10 aerospace executives led by Norm Augustine has assessed NASA's plan as "fatally flawed." The panel suggests that the US turns to commercial providers to ferry crews into orbit, as an alternative to paying Russia.

SpaceX, which already holds NASA contracts to deliver cargo to the station outpost, figures it will cost the government about US$20 million a seat for round-trip travel aboard Dragon.

"We're trying to free NASA's money and talent to tackle the tough problems of going beyond Earth orbit rather than running a trucking service to Earth orbit," Augustine said.

"We think we're at a situation a little like the airlines were when the government stepped in and awarded contracts to carry the mail. That was the thing that made the airlines viable," he added.


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