Private-Enterprise Astronauts

Mike Massimino, an astronaut I've known for several years, was in New York yesterday -- and had more questions for me about NASA's future than I did for him. "I'm trying to ignore all that," he said. "But it's hard.... I can't imagine they would close down the whole thing." The "whole thing," in this case, would be NASA's plans, in the works for the last six years, to build the new Orion spacecraft and its Ares boosters to replace the space shuttles, and use them to return to the moon and eventually mount a Mars mission. The space station would be ditched in the Pacific in 2015. But that was the " Vision for Space Exploration" ordered up by President Bush. The Obama administration ordered a full review by a panel headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine; the answer came back that the plan was unworkable unless the U.S. wanted to spend $3 billion more a year. (See our story from last October HERE.) With the new NASA budget due on Monday, several sources tell ABC News Orion, Ares and any moon plans are dead for now. They would be replaced, at least in part, by private industry, which would get $6 billion in help over the next five years. The sources, in Washington and private industry, asked not to be identified because they did not want to antagonize the White House, or jump the gun on the president. The AP’s Seth Borenstein has much the same information we do; see his piece HERE. The Huntsville Times -- hometown paper to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama -- quotes an unnamed administration official as saying the White House wants to jump-start "commercial rockets -- what have been called 'space taxis' -- the main mode of transporting astronauts to and from the station." Some industry people have already taken to using the phrase "commercial crews." If they actually start to do jobs restricted, until now, to NASA astronauts, it will be a paradigm shift. Space fliers have historically been launched by governments (the U.S., Russia, China); many a startup company has gone under, waiting for the frontier to open. Keep in mind that the administration itself isn’t talking on the record yet, but Congress and the aerospace industry are already talking back. Here’s a statement from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a longtime backer of NASA: “Based on initial reports about the administration’s plan for NASA, they are replacing lost shuttle jobs in Florida too slowly, risking U.S. leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven commercial companies. “If the $6 billion in extra funding is for a commercial rocket, then the bigger rocket for human exploration will be delayed well into the next decade,” Nelson said. “That is unacceptable.

“We need a plan that provides America with uninterrupted access to space while also funding exploration to expand the boundaries of our knowledge.”

(Top: NASA artist's conception: a Dragon spacecraft, designed by Space Exploration Technologies ( SpaceX). SpaceX, founded by PayPal founder Elon Musk, already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly Dragon to the space station as a cargo ship after the space shuttles are retired. The company says it could upgrade Dragon to carry astronauts in three years after it gets a government go-ahead.)

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