President Bush plans to give private industry a greater role in space and encourage new commercial markets, including for human spaceflight.
In a policy statement released on Thursday, the White House said a big decline in the market for commercial launches had weakened the U.S. space transportation industry. Major changes were needed in the government’s role to ensure America’s access to space and protect vital security and economic interests.
“The U.S. government must capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit of the U.S. private sector, which offers ... opportunities to open new commercial markets, including public space travel,” it said.
The new policy comes only months after the world’s first privately funded manned spacecraft soared into space while the space shuttle program remains grounded after the Columbia disaster in 2003.
Departments to encourage spaceflight
In the new policy, Bush directed the secretaries of commerce and transportation to “encourage, facilitate and promote” commercial space transportation including human spaceflight.
The policy calls on the government to use American-made launch vehicles and other commercial services when possible and would limit the use of surplus military missiles in space launches. It would allow private companies to compete for government missions.
It also says NASA, the agency that took Americans to the moon in 1969, will limit its role in space-transport development to areas not served by private industry or the defense sector.
The policy was approved by Bush last month and posted by the White House of Science and Technology on its Web site.
The document reiterates a goal outlined by Bush last year — but given little attention since — of returning humans to the moon by 2020 and sending an eventual manned mission to Mars.
Nuclear power in space
The Pentagon and NASA would share responsibility for ensuring continued U.S. access to space. The Defense Department will be in charge of all space activities related to national security, despite problems it has had in implementing a costly missile-shield program.
NASA will be in charge of civil space transportation, but the policy limits its role in development to areas that the security or commerce sectors cannot meet. In particular, the policy says NASA will work to develop nuclear power for space travel.
It says surplus military missiles should be destroyed, or reserved for use by government agencies only when their use is cheaper than commercial launches and meets other requirements.
Other countries would also be encouraged to limit their use of surplus ballistic missiles, which the policy said would help prevent arms proliferation.
But the White House said it will consider on a case-by-case basis requests by U.S. companies to use surplus foreign missiles.
Bush’s proposal for a Mars program was ridiculed by Democrats and raised concerns among fiscal conservatives that a new space initiative would add to rising budget deficits. He rarely mentioned the space initiative during his re-election campaign.
In October, the privately funded SpaceShipOne rocket plane soared to the edge of space twice in a week's time span, setting a new altitude record and clinching a $10 million prize designed to spur commercial space travel.
Inspired by SpaceShipOne’s success, entrepreneurs like Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, have already announced plans to make space travel as ordinary as a Caribbean cruise.