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July 31, 2009

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Space taxis can be left to private enterprise

THE United States government should leave the business of launching cargo and people into Earth orbit to private commercial space transporters, members of a presidential panel said on Wednesday.

A subcommittee of the Human Space Flight Review panel said turning over transport services to the International Space Station to private firms would allow the US space agency NASA to focus on new challenges, such as extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit.

The International Space Station, a US$100 billion project involving 16 nations, orbits about 360 kilometers above the planet.

"My God, great NASA has been to the moon and we are sort of thinking that it is a big challenge for us to continue going to (low-Earth orbit)? Let's turn it over to newcomers," Bohdan "Bo" Bejmuk, a former Boeing Co executive, told panel members.

"I think you will find out there are a lot of people who will rise and compete. Some of them will fail, some of them will succeed, but you will have essentially created a new industry."

NASA currently spends about half of its budget - US$18 billion in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009 - on human space programs.

Its future plans include completing construction of the space station with seven final shuttle missions, retiring the shuttle fleet in 2010 and developing new spacecraft that can travel to the space station, the moon and other destinations.

NASA has provided seed funds for the privately funded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp to develop commercial spaceships to haul cargo to the space station.

SpaceX also has a contract option to upgrade its capsule with an escape system and other equipment needed for passenger service.

The government's own new Orion spaceship is scheduled to debut in 2015.

The human space flight review panel is scheduled to issue its report by August 31.

NASA meanwhile was preparing for the homecoming of the shuttle Endeavour and its seven-member crew schedule today.


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