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NASA AT 50 | The Road Ahead

Aiming for Stars, Entrepreneurs May Also Fill Gaps

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By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Elon Musk has spent six years, $100 million of his own money and enormous emotional energy to develop a fleet of privately operated rockets and spacecraft -- and has watched the first three prototypes climb only partway to orbit before falling to Earth.

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But he says he's not a bit discouraged.

Musk is seeking to become the first entrepreneur to compete with the world's governments in the business of flying cargo -- and someday astronauts -- to the international space station and beyond. Private companies such as Boeing and Lockheed have long built spacecraft for NASA, but that has been under contract, and the space agency owned the hardware in the end.

Musk remains confident that his company, SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., will be able to fly to the space station by the end of 2010, and a large contingent of NASA and other space officials are eager for him to succeed -- both because they see private space travel as the wave of the future since it promises to be much cheaper, and increasingly because it would bolster national security.

"NASA won't have the capacity to carry cargo to and from the station on an American vessel after 2010, and we're definitely looking to the private sector to help fill the gap," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. "Rocket science truly is one of the hardest things humans can do, but the technology to transport cargo to the station is mature enough that we strongly believe private enterprise can and must step in."

Back to Exploration

For some time, Griffin and many in Congress have been encouraging private companies to get more involved in space transport, with the goals of reducing the cost of going into space and getting NASA out of the cargo- and crew-hauling business and back into pure exploration.

With relations chilling between the United States and Russia over the conflict in Georgia, the issue has taken on new urgency. As things stand now, NASA will be unable to transport astronauts and most cargo to the space station without Russian help from 2011 to at least 2015, and further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations could jeopardize America's ability to get astronauts to the primarily U.S.-financed space station.

Numerous companies are hoping to meet the challenge, but SpaceX and its fledgling fleet of reusable -- and therefore potentially much cheaper -- spacecraft are generally seen as the furthest along, despite the three unsuccessful test flights of the Falcon 1 rocket from an island in the Pacific.

"Our launches haven't reached orbit because of design problems, and with each test we learn what we have to do differently," Musk said in a recent interview.

He said he is confident the company will be ready to transport cargo to the space station by the end of 2010. To reach that point, however, SpaceX and its 525 employees not only have to prove they can dependably launch rockets, send them to the station and dock them safely, they also have to win the first-ever private NASA contract to provide the service. The agency's request for proposals went out in April and attracted more than a dozen bids.

(The Japanese space agency and Arianespace, the public-private European program, will carry cargo as part of their obligations to the space station partnership, but they were not allowed to bid for the U.S.-only contract.)

Musk, 37, who made his millions as a founder of the online payment system PayPal, said he expects that SpaceX will be one of the two contract winners, but NASA officials said all bidders remain in the running.


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