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Panel: Expand private role in space

A presidential commission thinks companies can bear many costs of space exploration.

By Associated Press
Published June 15, 2004

WASHINGTON - A White House panel of space experts, wrestling with questions about how to pay for expeditions to the moon and Mars, wants NASA to give private companies a broader role and a greater share of the financial burden.

The presidential commission will recommend that NASA's role in missions be limited to "areas where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity."

Responsibility for manned spaceflight would stay with NASA.

The commission's final report is expected this week. President Bush has proposed establishing a lunar base within two decades and a manned landing on Mars after 2030.

The president's panel, led by former astronaut Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, describes how to meet Bush's exploration objectives "within reasonable schedules and affordable costs."

Its recommendations are aimed at least partly toward easing the burden for taxpayers by increasing commercialization of the nation's space program.

A broader role for private industry in America's space program, however, could reignite a simmering debate over astronaut safety in an environment where corporations are driven to reduce costs, generate shareholder profits and meet contractual promises.

The board that investigated the Columbia breakup in 2003 criticized NASA's "substantial transfers of safety responsibility from the government to the private sector" during its greater reliance on private contractors since the mid 1990s.

The White House commission said NASA should allow private companies "to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA and most immediately in accessing low-Earth orbit." It said it anticipates "reasonable risk . . . along with some failures."

Experts said that clearly signals an intention to hand over nearly all space launches except manned missions to private corporations.

"It carves out the launch of astronauts," said George T. Whitesides, head of the National Space Society, a nonprofit group that advocates space exploration. "I'm sure there will be a lot of debate about that over the coming weeks."

"This is really reprogramming the country's commitment to civilian space," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a member of the panel that investigated the Columbia breakup.

The commission's conclusions could be enormously lucrative for NASA's primary contractor, the United Space Alliance LLC of Houston, a partnership between the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. with more than 10,000 employees who handle most space shuttle duties.

[Last modified June 15, 2004, 01:00:24]

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