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Private space

(Photo by Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images)


Private space

Congress worries about NASA's growing reliance on private firms

The 368-ton Falcon 9, a sleek, 180-foot aluminum lithium alloy rocket filled with liquid oxygen and kerosene, could launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., as early as Dec. 19. Sitting in the rocket's nose will be an unmanned spacecraft named Dragon. After liftoff, Dragon will separate, attain orbit, conduct communications and maneuverability tests, and then-upon NASA approval-dock with the International Space Station.

The rocket and capsule weren't built by NASA, though. They are the handiwork of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a private firm that has received some $300 million in government grants and has a $1.6 billion contract to deliver space station cargo for NASA while the agency redesigns its own rocket system, which may not be ready for a decade.

Between 2006 and 2008 SpaceX botched three Falcon 1 launches. The company's success-or failure-in sending a spacecraft to the space station will be a symbolic answer to a real question: Can private companies handle space transportation while NASA builds a replacement for the space shuttle?

Not everyone thinks so. Some Democrats and Republicans in Congress balked in October when NASA asked for $6 billion over five years to continue investing in commercial spaceflight. SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin are among the companies competing for government funds to take astronauts to space.

"From my perspective, the business case is not very compelling," said Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, at a space committee hearing. Hall feared that if private firms fail to attract commercial customers besides NASA, it may put the government in the position of "bailing out" the firms in the event they are unprofitable. Other lawmakers at the hearing worried the cost of private spaceflight would be more expensive than the $63 million per seat U.S. astronauts are already paying to ride aboard Russia's Soyuz rocket.

In response to the worries, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk guaranteed his company would charge NASA only $20 million per seat. And as for commercial customers, SpaceX currently has 35 private contracts, worth over $1 billion, to launch satellites.

Other firms in the space game: Orbital Sciences, which plans to deliver cargo to the space station next year with its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus capsule; and Virgin Galactic, which intends to take thrill-seekers and scientists on short suborbital flights by 2013.

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