By Senior writer
updated 2/15/2011 11:03:39 PM ET 2011-02-16T04:03:39

Despite a NASA spending freeze in the White House's new 2012 budget proposal, the space agency plans to prioritize commercial spaceflight in the hopes that American companies will soon be able to transport NASA astronauts to space.

Under President Barack Obama's proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year, which was announced on Monday, NASA would receive an annual budget of $18.7 billion — the same amount it was allocated in 2010.

Prioritizing ISS
Given limited funding, the space agency has decided to prioritize the International Space Station, and the effort to stimulate private U.S. companies to build spacecraft capable of carrying crews there, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said at a Monday press conference.

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"It's difficult fiscal times and we had to make very difficult fiscal choices," Bolden said. "The centerpiece is ISS. If I want to sustain it and have it safe for crew, I need a way to get cargo and crews there as quickly and safely as possible. With that goal in mind, we changed the balance of funding to commercial crew and the vehicles themselves."

NASA's three space shuttles are set to retire this year, leaving NASA with a gap in its ability to ferry astronauts and cargo to the station, which is expected to operate for at least another nine years. Until private U.S. spacecraft are available, NASA will have to buy seats for its astronauts to ride aboard Russia's Soyuz capsules. (NASA sends some U.S. astronauts on Soyuz flights every year as part of a deal with the Russian Federal Space Agency.)

Where most sectors of NASA would receive less funding than was recommended in the NASA Authorization Act that Congress passed in October 2010, commercial spaceflight would receive more money under the new budget blueprint. The Obama administration budget request offers $850 million for development of private spacecraft, while the bill stipulated only $500 million for 2012.

"With the extension of space station to at least 2020, making commercial crew successful is a high priority to close the gap," said Douglas Cooke, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems. "The budget numbers have been increased to bring these on in a meaningful timeframe."

Given those levels of funding, Cooke said he would hope commercial spacecraft would be in operation by the 2014-2016 time period.

Up for debate
The White House's 2012 budget request must now be debated by Congress, which has the ultimate responsibility to pass a new budget. Some lawmakers have resisted NASA's recent commercial push, saying that privately built spacecraft can't be as safe or reliable as government vehicles.

Bolden defended the commercial space industry, highlighting achievements such as the December 2010 test launch of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon 9 rocket. The capsule became the first commercial craft to launch to Earth orbit and re-enter successfully.

"I defy anybody who says that American industry can't do what I have faith in them doing," Bolden said.

Commercial space leaders applauded the move.

"In this constrained fiscal environment, commercial spaceflight is more important than ever," Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a statement. "NASA's Commercial Crew program will result in significant savings to the U.S. taxpayer, and will cut the amount of money the nation has been sending to Russia every year. Leveraging private investment is the only way NASA can make its dollars go farther in these times of belt-tightening."

Budget cuts
Other elements of NASA's portfolio would take a hit under the new budget proposal, including a plan to develop a heavy-lift rocket capable of carrying humans to the moon, asteroids and Mars.

The 2012 budget request offers $1.8 billion for a heavy-lift booster, and $1 billion for a crew capsule to ride atop it. In comparison, last year's authorization bill sought $2.6 billion for the rocket and $1.4 billion for the capsule.

NASA officials acknowledged that these cuts could delay the process of building such a vehicle, and declined to say whether or not they would be able to complete the heavy lift rocket by 2016 as stipulated in the NASA Authorization Act.

Bolden said the booster would be "evolvable," and later versions would build on initial precursor models.

"It doesn't start out as the biggest rocket known to man," Bolden said.

Other NASA projects would also receive funding hits under the new proposal — notably the agency's Earth science program, robotic precursor exploration missions intended to map out solar system destinations before astronauts visit, and a plan to redesign NASA's Florida Kennedy Space Center as a "21st Century Launch Complex."

You can follow senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

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Explainer: Ten high-profile players in the commercial space race

  • Image: Obama at KSC
    Jewel Samad  /  AFP — Getty Images file
    US President Barack Obama walks past a main engine of a shuttle as he arrives to speak on the new course the administration is charting for NASA and the future of US leadership in human space flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 15, 2010.

    When NASA's space shuttle fleet retires in 2011, the space agency will have to rely on Russian spacecraft and the private sector to taxi cargo and humans to and from the International Space Station, even as it turns its focus to the technologies required to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

    President Barack Obama views the policy as a boost to the nascent commercial spaceflight industry, where competition is already heating up to supply the taxi services. Some companies are also talking about offering out-of-this-world rides for researchers as well as tourists with deep pockets and a serious case of star lust. Click ahead to check out 10 of the top players in the race to commercialize space.

  • Space Exploration Technologies

    Image: Falcon 9 launch
    SpaceX's Falcon 9 rises from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, sending a test capsule into orbit.

    PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has already signed up NASA as a marquee account for his high-flying venture, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. The government has a $1.6 billion contract with the Hawthorne, Calif., company to provide unmanned cargo deliveries to the International Space Station starting in 2011 with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

    This image shows the successful test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on June 4. The rocket will eventually carry the Dragon to orbit. If all goes according to plan, astronauts may get a lift as well, starting in 2013. SpaceX has also secured contracts to launch next-generation satellites for the telecommunications company Iridium.

  • Orbital Sciences

    Image: Orbital Sciences
    Orbital Sciences

    Another NASA contract — this one worth a reported $1.9 billion — is in the bag at Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, which is planning to supply the International Space Station with its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, shown here in an artist’s rendering. A newly-developed Taurus 2 rocket will ferry the cargo ship to space. If the opportunity presents itself, the company may advance plans to ferry humans to orbit as well.

  • Boeing

    Image: Space capsule
    Boeing is hard at work on the research and development of a new space capsule aimed at flying people to the International Space Station.

    Boeing, the aerospace giant, has unveiled plans to flesh out designs and build a new capsule-based spaceship called the CST-100, which will take cargo and passengers to the International Space Station. The development push comes thanks to an $18 million NASA grant.

    The Apollo-like capsule will carry a crew of seven and be designed to launch on a variety of rockets, including the Atlas and Delta rockets operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture known as the United Launch Alliance, as well as SpaceX's Falcon. Extra seats may be made available for paying passengers through a marketing arrangement with Space Adventures.

  • Masten Space Systems

    X Prize Foundation via AP
    This photo shows the Masten Space System rocket XA-0.1B, also called "Xombie" launching from the pad, traveling 50 meters above the ground at the Mojave Air & Space Port. Mojave, CA on Oct. 7, 2009.

    While big NASA contracts have already gone to big names in the commercial space industry, lesser-known Masten Space Systems is in the race to pick up taxi fares to the International Space Station as well.

    The company won a $1 million lunar challenge prize with the Xoie spacecraft shown here. It is now working on a next-generation vehicle based on the vertical-takeoff-and-landing design to ferry cargo. NASA funding will go toward four test flights of the spacecraft, called Xaero.

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation

    Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation
    Lewis Geyer  /  Times-call

    The reusable Dream Chaser space plane, under development by Sierra Nevada Corp. subsidiary SpaceDev , has a look and feel reminiscent of a mini-space shuttle. Like NASA spacecraft, a rocket lifts the space plane up — and at the end of its mission, the plane lands on a runway.

    In fact, the transportation system is based on NASA technology, and the company recently received $20 million from the space agency to continue the plane's development. A full-scale mockup of the plane is shown in this file photo from its unveiling in 2006.

  • Bigelow Aerospace

    Image: Bigelow Aerospace
    Bigelow Aerospace

    Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow padded his bank account by building a hotel chain, Budget Suites of America. His latest pioneering venture, Bigelow Aerospace, is aimed at building affordable habitats in space.

    Two prototype inflatable capsules have already been launched, and plans are in the works to put the more expansive Sundancer space station, shown here in an artist's conception, in orbit by 2015.

    In this case, the overnight guests may include national space agencies as well as private-sector researchers and thrill-seeking tourists. Other players in the commercial space sector would taxi guests to and from the puffy digs.

  • Blue Origin

    Image: Blue Origin
    Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who amassed a fortune selling the printed word online, has few words to share about Blue Origin, his commercial space venture to fly a vertical launch and landing rocket to suborbital space.

    This much is known: A demonstration vehicle called Goddard, shown here in a file photo, successfully took off and landed in 2006 from the company's private spaceport in west Texas. It's not yet known when the company's commercial vehicle will be ready for a public unveiling.

    A bit more info: NASA recently awarded the company $3.7 million of a $50 million pie that it says is for the "development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems." Blue Origin is concentrating on the development of a launch escape system that could push a NASA capsule to safety in case of emergency.

  • Virgin Galactic

    Virgin Galactic
    The Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceliner SpaceShipTwo makes its first crewed flight on July 15, 2010 over the Mojave Desert in California.

    Space enthusiasts with $200,000 to burn can book a ticket to ride to outer space with Virgin Galactic on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The plane, meant for tourism as well as research, will haul six passengers and two pilots on suborbital flights that pop into outer space for a few minutes before returning to Earth.

    The aircraft was designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and colleagues at Scaled Composites. Test flights of the spacecraft, which launches from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, are under way. Ticketholders will get their opportunity to ride once all systems are a go.

  • Armadillo Aerospace

    Image: Armadillo future spacecraft
    Armadillo Aerospace

    Would-be space tourists who balk at the price tag for a ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo might consider another option in the offing: $102,000 for a seat on Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace's vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.

    The spacecraft, shown in this artist's conception, will rocket passengers into outer space for about five minutes of weightlessness and 360-degree views. Tickets can be booked through Space Adventures, the same company that has arranged rides to the International Space Station for the super-wealthy.

  • XCOR Aerospace

    Image: XCOR Aerospace
    XCOR Aerospace

    Yet another option for the space tourist is a $95,000 trip up to the inky blackness at the edge of space in XCOR's Lynx rocketship. The spacecraft, which has room for just one pilot and one passenger riding shotgun, takes off horizontally from a runway and climbs steeply to 200,000 feet, where views abound of planet Earth and the stars. Advance reservations for the hour-long trip can be booked through space tourism company RocketShipTours. An artist's rendering of the rocketship is seen here.


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