Nightly News   |  April 17, 2010

NASA's new direction a boost for private firm?

The Space X company, founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, claims it would be prepared to ferry astronauts to space within three years of getting a contract. But some prominent NASA icons say that's nonsense. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

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>>> is history. so what replaces it and what is in the stars for america 's space program ? those questions got a lot of attention this past week as some of america 's space heroes criticized president obama 's vision, including a plan to let private companies take over manned missions to the space station . nbc 's lisa myers reports.

>> reporter: the obama administration 's new plan to cancel most of constellation, the program to build the next generation of rockets for human space flight , has generated controversy. it shifts manned missions to the space station from nasa to commercial companies, which claim they can do it cheaper, sooner, and more reliably. the president spoke about the change this week.

>> this is precisely by investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies that we will have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities.

>> reporter: while the big aerospace contractors who were part of constellation may compete for the new work, other potential winners include newer companies like space -x, the latelate est startup for ian musk. musk created pay pal , the online payment system . and an electric sports car , the tesla. he's a politically connected billionaire whose contributed to both parties and co-sponsored an inaugural bash for president obama . on thursday, he was on hand to cape canaveral to greet the president and show off his falcon 9 rocket.

>> i hope space -x will be one of the principle means by which nasa astronauts go to space .

>> reporter: the bush administration gave space -x a nasa contract to carry cargo into space . musk says his rocket and dragon capsule could carry astronauts too. like nasa , space -x had delays and technical problems. by now, it was supposed to have delivered cargo to the space station . it has not. one of its five falcon flights did successfully put a payload into orbit. all of the experts we talked to say they're impressed with space -x and its engineering talent . and supporting encouraging companies to innovate. but many say the administration 's plan puts too much responsibility on untested commercial companies, and leaves nasa without enough oversight. tom young , a long-serving aerospace executive and former nasa official, thinks it is a big mistake .

>> it has a low probability of success.

>> reporter: mike griffin with president bush 's nasa administrator when nasa gave space -x the cargo contract.

>> i am the biggest fan of commercial space that you can imagine. it is just not here yet. and so to rely on something which is not here yet concerns me greatly.

>> reporter: space -x claims it can be ready to ferry astronauts three years after getting a contract. jane cernan, the last man to walk on the moon , thinks there is no way any commercial company can do that.

>> the commercial sector is still walking around like a young kid learning to walk . they don't know yet what they don't know.

>> reporter: musk acknowledged space -x has a lot to prove, but says critics of the plan have a vested interest in nasa 's entrenched bureaucracy. he calls constellation, the rocket program being axed, a pork supertanker. musk says america 's future in space depends on companies like his.

>> we have to make huge improvements in both the cost and the reliability of space transport . i think that really can only be done by the private sector .

>> reporter: musk says commercial companies will deliver, freeing up nasa to develop technologies to go to other planets, and creating a brighter future for u.s. space exploration . america 's actual future in space may now depend on whether that's true. lisa myers , nbc news, washington .

>>> up next here tonight , an