The Sciences

Space Boost

After retirement of the space shuttle, NASA funding will open a big launch window for SpaceX and other private space companies.

By Victor LimjocoAug 25, 2006 5:00 AM


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Space entrepreneurs who want to fly you into orbit will get their chance to take cargo and crews to the space station when the space shuttles retire. NASA's award of contracts totaling $500 million to private rocketeers is a boost for a new approach to spaceflight. "Today it costs over a billion dollars for a space shuttle flight," says Space X founder, Elon Musk. "Unless we can dramatically reduce that cost we will never become a space faring civilization."

Musk now has his chance. NASA is funding his private launch company to develop low-cost transportation systems to replace the retiring space shuttles. NASA officials say this makes good on the agency's promise to partner with entrepreneurs to expand the next frontier. "You are getting the first traders along the Mississippi now. That's happening in space," says, Edward J. Stanton, Jr., director of NASA's Constellation Systems Division, which is overseeing development of the transportation and exploration systems to return to the moon. Space X's ultimate goal is to colonize mars. But first the company is working to develop an industry first, a fully reusable rocket. "Almost every rocket on earth except for the space shuttle is thrown away after one flight. And the space shuttle, the big orange tank that it sits on is thrown away every flight," Musk says. The reusable rocket has other cost saving features. Space X's Falcon comes ready to fly, instead of being assembled on the launch pad. "This is analogous to building part of an airplane in the factory and part of the airplane on the runway," he says. "And you can imagine that's a pretty expensive way to split the construction." The first launch attempt by Space X in March 2006 was a failure, but that's no concern for taxpayers. Under the new NASA contracts, if these companies don't succeed, they won't get paid.

The other small company chosen for a NASA contract is Rocketplane Kistler, which is also developing reusable launch vehicles.

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