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Cash-strapped NASA looks to private industry

The U.S. space agency will seek to create niches for private business as it prepares to return to the moon by 2020, the agency's chief said Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

The U.S. space agency will seek to create niches for private business as it prepares to return to the moon by 2020, the agency's chief said Thursday.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will "help to drive the creation of a new space industry in low Earth orbit and beyond in such a way that NASA becomes a reliable and supportive customer for that industry," Administrator Michael Griffin said.

Nearly 35 years since humans last set foot on the moon, a cash-strapped NASA will rely on industry to meet space exploration goals set by President Bush in 2004, Griffin made clear in remarks to reporters after speaking at the National Space Symposium, an annual space-industry conference.

Potential beneficiaries of new opportunities in space include contractors Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., Raytheon Co. and General Dynamics Corp.

NASA's goals include starting robotic trips to the moon next year, returning people there by 2020 — this time to stay — and preparing for a trip to Mars.

"At this stage in the development of our plans for a return to the moon and a lunar outpost, it is important that we at NASA not prescribe roles and responsibilities for future international partnerships," Griffin said.

Instead, he said, NASA had defined a minimalist exploration architecture "with the hope that international and commercial partners will want to augment these capabilities with their own."

In a follow-up session with reporters, he cited potential openings for companies to supply lunar habitats, provide logistics and bring solar power to activities on the moon and in space.

In addition, he lauded Russia's sale of seats on its space flights to thrill-seekers such as Charles Simonyi, a U.S. billionaire who became the fifth space tourist last week on a journey to the international space station at a cost of $25 million.

"I say more power to them," Griffin said of the tourism sideline.

NASA has shied from taking nonprofessionals into space since the Challenger disaster that killed all seven shuttle crew members including a teacher-astronaut on Jan. 28, 1986.

Marco Caceres, a space expert at the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va., aerospace consultancy, said NASA must foster market niches to get to the moon and beyond.

"NASA will only be able to afford to send manned missions to explore space if it allows private industry to lead," he said, referring to such areas as space tourism and cargo transport to low earth orbit.

PayPal founder Elon Musk told the conference his Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, a launch company, would be profitable next year.

"We are hell-bent on improving both reliability and the cost of space access," he said.