NASA Administrator Michael Griffin envisions space as a very different place in the coming decades — a place where commercial flights take astronauts and supplies to the international space station and companies build fueling stations in orbit.
"The exploration of the solar system cannot be what we want it to be as an enterprise borne solely by the American taxpayer or indeed even by the taxpayers of the nations willing to join with us in this enterprise," Griffin told the American Astronautical Society's annual conference Tuesday.
Griffin said lean government budgets compel him to choose between achieving all of the scientific goals of the international space station or completing its construction. He opted for the latter.
Americans look to the free market when they want services provided reliably and efficiently — but that attitude's been lacking in space.
The international space station, which is about the size of a three-bedroom house and halfway complete, provides an opportunity to promote "commercial space ventures that will help us meet our exploration objectives and at the same time create new jobs and new industry," he said.
Once the nation's shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, Griffin said he would like to see commercial industry take over crew rotations and supply missions.
"We want to be able to buy these services from American industry," he said. "We believe that when we engage the engine of competition, these services will be provided in a more cost effective fashion than when the government has to do it."
The space agency will begin seeking proposals this fall from industries to deliver cargo to orbit. "What we are talking about is completely traditional in the bulk of our economy," Griffin said. "We need more of this in the space enterprise."
Griffin said the private sector could develop habitats in which astronauts would live on the moon, and develop communications and navigation systems as well as orbiting fueling depots where crews headed beyond low Earth orbit could refuel on return trips to the moon or farther.
"I think we are at the start of something big — something akin to what we saw with the personal computer 25 years ago," the NASA chief said. "The building blocks of our architecture could easily be used to accomplish much more with the right leverage from commercial providers."
Courtney Stadd, a former NASA chief of staff and White House liaison, said the agency has to compete for funding with the war, hurricane relief and a budget deficit.
He said Griffin and his staff are working make adjustments to an agency once described as "stuck in quite a conundrum."
"It is burdened with old and aging infrastructure, frayed at the edges, costly, some times unreliable," Stadd said. "...any misstep in human spaceflight could spell a very long hiatus in human driven exploration spaceflight in the U.S. So this underscores the need to realize that NASA cannot succeed alone in pursuing the exploration vision."
President Bush has outlined a plan for the agency to return to the moon and then onto Mars.
The challenge is to avoid running programs so lean they become ineffective as the agency pursues exploration, Stadd said.
He said other countries, such as China, will be the only ones to benefit if America's space program is stalled. He urged those at the conference to make sure America is first to return to the moon to greet others with a U.S. flag.