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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 LimjocoAugust 26, 2006 5:00 AM


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Space entrepreneurs who want to fly youinto orbit will get their chance to take cargo and crews to the spacestation when the space shuttles retire. NASA's award of contractstotaling $500 million to private rocketeers is a boost for a newapproach 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."

Musknow has his chance. NASA is funding his private launch company todevelop low-cost transportation systems to replace the retiring spaceshuttles. NASA officials say this makes good on the agency's promise topartner with entrepreneurs to expand the next frontier.

"Youare getting the first traders along the Mississippi now. That'shappening 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.

SpaceX's ultimate goal is to colonize mars. But first the company is workingto develop an industry first, a fully reusable rocket.

"Almostevery rocket on earth except for the space shuttle is thrown away afterone flight. And the space shuttle, the big orange tank that it sits onis thrown away every flight," Musk says.

The reusable rockethas other cost saving features. Space X's Falcon comes ready to fly,instead of being assembled on the launch pad.

"This isanalogous to building part of an airplane in the factory and part ofthe airplane on the runway," he says. "And you can imagine that's apretty expensive way to split the construction."

The firstlaunch attempt by Space X in March 2006 was a failure, but that's noconcern for taxpayers. Under the new NASA contracts, if these companiesdon'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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