A White House panel has recommended that the government reorganize NASA and refocus space policy to encourage private companies to provide the entrepreneurship and expertise needed to implement President Bush's plan to explore the moon, Mars and the solar system.
The nine-member President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy said the human space flight program should remain in government hands for the foreseeable future, but a "commercialized" space industry should take over robotic space ventures and, "most immediately," launches of low-Earth-orbiting satellites.
"Our journey will require the government to embrace fundamental changes in its management and organization," the commission's 60-page report said. "The exploration vision . . . must certainly necessitate placing greater reliance on the private sector."
The report, titled "A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover," is scheduled for release tomorrow. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the report yesterday.
The commission urged the White House to form a Cabinet-level Space Exploration Steering Council to assess progress on achieving the new program's goals. The report also endorsed current NASA initiatives to undertake prize competitions, tax breaks and other incentives to bring innovators into space programs.
Although the commission said "it would be wrong" to view the report as "a vote of 'no confidence' " in NASA, it made several recommendations to create a more supple agency, including transforming its branches into federally funded facilities run by nonprofit organizations or the private sector. This model is used by the Energy Department's National Laboratories and by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, run by the California Institute of Technology.
The White House created the commission on Jan. 27, two weeks after Bush, in a speech, called for "a renewed spirit of discovery" to develop a human space flight program to return to the moon -- last visited in 1972 -- and eventually to travel to Mars.
The commission, chaired by former astronaut Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge Jr., was asked to make recommendations needed to implement the new initiative and report within four months. A commission spokesman said members were unable to comment on the report yesterday because most were traveling to Washington for the formal release ceremony. NASA did not respond to the report because officials said they had not seen it.
Still, decision makers have long been aware that the key focus of the report would be to nurture a space industry that breaks what the commission called NASA's "Apollo-era" model -- initiatives controlled by the government through its private-sector contractors.
But several experts, including Michael Beavin, director of government relations for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a nonprofit trade organization, noted that the "commercial space industry" does not really exist:
"It's been around for a while, but primarily it's only had only one customer -- the federal government," Beavin said in a telephone interview. "We really are at the beginning, and NASA needs to reach out to the entrepreneurs."
"In areas like developing launch vehicles and spacecraft to dock with the international space station, all industry needs is assurance that if they build, NASA will buy," said Bruce Mahone, director of space policy for the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group.
But, he added in a telephone interview, other items, such as the immense rockets that may be needed to lift Mars payloads into orbit, or the new multifaceted crew exploration vehicle destined to fly to the moon and eventually, perhaps, to Mars, are one-of-a-kind jobs that "will not be a mass-produced article anytime soon."