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October 24, 2009

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US may invest US$5b in space taxis

THE United States could get astronauts back into space faster and spend less money by scrapping the Ares rocket designed to succeed the shuttle and turning instead to public-private space taxis, according to a presidential advisory panel.

The space shuttles are due to be retired next year and the replacement vehicle will not be ready until 2017 or 2018, the panel said on Thursday.

But a government investment of about US$5 billion in a public-private space taxi program could see the nation resume space missions within about seven years, it reported.

The Obama administration convened the panel of 10 aerospace executives, former astronauts, scientists and engineers to assess NASA's plan for human space exploration and to suggest alternatives to the moon-focused initiative championed previously.

"It is very clear that no commercial entity could raise the risk capital to build a rocket and capsule and recover the costs in our lifetime," said committee member Ed Crawley, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"But it is clear that if a substantial fraction of the development cost were carried by the government that there is likely to be a market that would allow the operating costs to be amortized over various uses," he said.

In addition to ferrying astronauts to and from the space station, commercial space taxis could fly researchers, tourists and payloads.

Several firms, including California-based Space Exploration Technologies, are already working on space capsules and rockets.

NASA is expected to award US$50 million next month for study contracts for commercial passenger space transportation.


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