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Aiming for Stars, Entrepreneurs May Also Fill Gaps

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.

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.

Space experts say few Americans know that NASA is intent on privatizing space transport -- most assume that anything to do with exploring space and sending humans there remains the agency's domain.

However, the U.S. space scene was quickly changing well before the question of Russia's availability as a space partner became so important. Experts generally agree that many future American astronauts and cargo shipments will be carried on privately built rockets -- the "new space" paradigm that has already transformed the launching of satellites and, some believe, that will eventually make some space entrepreneurs staggeringly rich.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourism project, for instance, is moving forward quickly, as are plans by Robert Bigelow -- a Las Vegas hotel magnate, UFO researcher and space enthusiast -- to put a private space station-hotel into orbit. They and others have much grander plans, as well.

But many of the companies will need a government boost to succeed. Congress embraced the notion in 2004 when it established a five-year, $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to encourage private companies to build rockets and spacecraft designed to carry cargo to and from the space station. The program pays the companies only when they meet specified milestones for raising funds, designing and testing rockets and capsules, and finally conducting test launches.

Ready to Rendezvous

COTS has had a mixed record, and one company has already been disqualified because it fell behind in meeting its milestones. But the two companies currently working with the program -- SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles -- say they expect to have spacecraft ready to rendezvous with the station between 2011 and 2015. Musk goes further, saying that with financial support through COTS, he could also have a spaceship able to carry a seven-member crew to the space station by late 2011.

"Our rockets and capsules were designed from the start to be human-rated," Musk said, though his company has yet to tackle the costly job of creating a launch-abort system to protect astronauts at takeoff. "We've been working with NASA on all the technical aspects of carrying a crew and docking at the station with them, and we see no reason why we can't do it."

NASA's Griffin, however, is skeptical that SpaceX will be ready for human spaceflight anytime soon, though he says he greatly respects Musk and believes that the company will be able to haul cargo to and from the space station by 2015. In any case, NASA currently has no funds to support private manned spaceflight efforts; indeed, the agency is struggling to pay for its own new spacecraft, which it hopes to have ready by 2015.

The prospect of private (though initially government-subsidized) human spaceflight is popular in Congress. The House overwhelmingly passed a bill this summer that would add between $50 million and $150 million to NASA's budget for a private program, but the stalemate between President Bush and Congress over discretionary funding makes it unlikely to pass this year.

In the view of David Logsdon, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Space Enterprise Council, the need for greater investment in private space endeavors is increasingly pressing.

"Looking especially at the situation in Russia today, this is obviously something we should have done long before," he said. "It's quite clear by now that the commercial side is essential for us to remain the world leader in space."

Logsdon said NASA's long-range plan to build a settlement on the moon also needs much greater private involvement, and he has been working with the agency to make that happen.

"Without the commercial side, the whole program is doomed to fail," he said. "Commercial needs to have a vital role from beginning to end, and NASA needs to make many more on-ramps for that involvement."

Musk, born in South Africa and now enthusiastically pro-American, agrees. He said he founded SpaceX and has plowed so much money into it because the NASA-based "old space" model was too limited. He hopes to take his company public after he proves its capabilities.

"What I wanted to do," he said, "was to help make the United States a truly space-faring civilization."

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