Image: Voss and Dream Chaser
Glenn Asakawa / Univ. of Colorado
Former astronaut Jim Voss stands with students around a full-scale model of Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, housed inside a hangar at Centennial Airport in Colorado. Voss teaches engineering at the University of Colorado and is also an executive at Sierra Nevada. The UC-Boulder students in the picture include Christine Fanchiang, Taylor Donaldson, Chad Healy and Ben Kemper.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/10/2011 11:38:32 AM ET 2011-08-10T15:38:32

At the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in April, a reporter asked former NASA Administrator Dick Truly, "What do you think about NASA’s space policy?"

The three-star admiral and former astronaut, who helped lead America's space agency through the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger explosion, thought for a moment. Then he answered with bedrock sincerity, choosing his words with deliberate care: "If you can tell me what NASA’s policy is, I'll tell you what I think."

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The laughter was slow to fade. Lately it's been hard for NASA to make a decision and stick with it. But Admiral Truly, it's just possible that America’s stumble-along space agency has stumbled upon a pretty good plan for low Earth orbit.

It's true that the retirement of the space shuttle fleet will force American astronauts to ride Russia’s Soyuz spaceships for at least the next few years. But at the same time, U.S. companies are working on space taxis that could start flying Americans to the International Space Station within four years or so.

Low-cost flights from those companies could free up a larger chunk of NASA’s $18 billion-plus yearly budget to spend on NASA’s true purpose: exploring the future routes needed to get our species off Earth when humankind's cradle can no longer sustain life.

Of course, this scenario assumes that we earthlings believe humankind is worth saving. If $18 billion isn’t enough to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit on Lewis-and-Clark missions, then someone should determine whether NASA’s dollars are just going to political feel-good projects.  

For astronaut rides in low Earth orbit, the space agency currently has four commercial spacecraft under consideration: two capsules, a space plane and a gumdrop spaceship.

They are:

  • Blue Origin, a secretive company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. It's working on a gumdrop-shaped capsule to carry astronauts.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp., which is building a reusable Dream Chaser space plane that looks and feels like a mini-space shuttle. The craft is to ride a rocket into orbit, and at the end of its journey it would glide to a runway landing like the space shuttle did.
  • The Boeing Co., the foursome's most experienced aerospace company. Boeing is building an Apollo-style CST-100 capsule, but so far it's behind the newest kid on the block.
  • SpaceX, which was founded nine years ago by dot-com millionaire Elon Musk. The new boys at SpaceX have two successful Cape Canaveral launches under their belt.

SpaceX's most recent launch, which took place last December, shook the space establishment to its roots. The company's privately built rocket, named Falcon 9, did something never done before: It climbed into orbit and then turned loose a privately built spacecraft named Dragon.  Dragon scooted around Earth twice, maneuvering its flight path before parachuting into the eastern Pacific, 500 miles from its flight control center in Hawthorne, Calif.

SpaceX is now getting another Dragon ready to dock with the International Space Station before year’s end.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, told me that NASA is working with SpaceX to combine two test missions into one, with the goal of achieving cargo delivery to the station as soon as possible.

SpaceX has its launch pad, its rocket and its spacecraft humming. If the company succeeds in delivering cargo to the space station, it will be well on its way to flying astronauts to and from the orbiting outpost as early as 2014.

Image: U.S. flag
Symbolism abounds in this July 18 image from the International Space Station: Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson speaks to the camera during the last shuttle flight, while NASA space station crew members attach a U.S. flag to a hatch. The flag flew on the first space shuttle mission in 1981, and will be awarded to the next U.S. crew to be launched to the station from U.S. soil. Also visible are a model of the space shuttle and the bell that is rung to announce the arrival and departure of visiting crews.

Boeing plans to conduct three test flights in 2015: The first flight will be an unmanned orbital trial, the second will be an altitude abort test without astronauts, and the third calls for two Boeing test pilots to fly the CST-100 ship all the way to the space station. When the test flights are finished and regular trips to the space station begin, the commander's seat will be filled by a NASA astronaut rather than a Boeing pilot.

Boeing has the experience and proven rocket and hardware to succeed.  But if this is a race, it currently looks as if SpaceX will beat Boeing to the finish line. Maybe SpaceX will falter, and Boeing will pull ahead. Or maybe one of the other contenders will take the lead. Sierra Nevada, for example, is also targeting 2015 for the start of orbital operations. Meanwhile, Blue Origin is keeping its plans close to the vest, as usual.

Phil McAlister, NASA’s acting director of commercial spaceflight development, told me "it’s not realistic that all four will make it through flight certification, but we’re hopeful there will be more than one."

The space-taxi companies that make it will be bidding for NASA’s two flights to and from the station each year. NASA will be buying seats — four on each flight. Not a large order for a new business.  But there’s always the high-priced space tourist with more money than they can spend. For 10 years, millionaires have been buying rides on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, and they could serve as a clientele for the new U.S. spaceships as well.

And don’t forget the cargo. The private taxis can haul payloads as well as people.

In this space race, money won't be the only prize. The most meaningful prize awaiting the first crew to cross the finish line is the flag, a very special flag. The last space shuttle crew left the prize behind on the space station last month. It's a U.S. flag that flew first on the space shuttle’s maiden voyage, on April 12, 1981. It’s hanging there, waiting.

The next American spacecraft reaching the station will claim the colors and bring them home.   “We want that flag,” says SpaceX.  “We want it too,” says Boeing.

Don’t forget the space family who sent the first humans to another world.  They too want that flag, as do the astronauts of history.  Collectively they want that flag, to heal their disappointment at not having an American spaceship that can fly American astronauts.

The first American to fly into earth orbit, John Glenn, said it simply: "Not having our own spaceship galls me."

NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every spaceflight flown by astronauts from Cape Canaveral. His latest book is an updated version on "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," which was originally written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.          

'Moon Shot' memories from Jay Barbree:

© 2013  Reprints

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.

Interactive: Final shuttle mission in focus

Photos: End of the Space Shuttle

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  1. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News,
    Above: Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014


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