NASA: Private Firms May Carry Cargo into Space
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
If you just happen to have a rocket that can reach to the International Space Station, you might want to get in touch with NASA. For the first time, the space agency is looking to hire private companies to bring cargo and eventually astronauts to space. As NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, the hope is they can do it cheaply.
DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:
To some who grew up in the Apollo era, NASA has been a big disappointment. There are no space hotels, no moon colonies and tickets up are expensive. By some estimates, space shuttle flights cost about a billion dollars each. The solution, these critics have argued, is to let the free market take over, bring in entrepreneurs and innovators. The government is now poised to give that a try. The space shuttle will fly its last mission in 2010, and NASA administrator Michael Griffin says his preference would be for independent rocket companies to make trips to the space station in the future. He spoke to the House Science Committee last week.
Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA Administrator): To that end, we will be subsidizing, over the five years of the budget run-out, approximately half-billion-dollar, commercial cargo, crew resupply capability. I do believe that that kind of a financial incentive will be sufficient to allow substantial providers to emerge.
KESTENBAUM: NASA already buys a lot of stuff from private companies; Boeing works on the space shuttle, ATK Thiokol makes the solid rockets. But Griffin says having a few big contractors isn't necessarily the cheapest way to go. The thinking goes that if you have more companies competing in a free-market-type situation, they will find better and cheaper ways to get to space. Griffin said he'd been an entrepreneur himself at one time, and he acknowledged dealing with start-ups carries risks.
Mr. GRIFFIN: I must say when you've never actually done anything, talking about doing it is a very easy thing.
Mr. ELON MUSK (SpaceX): True, I agree.
KESTENBAUM: Elon Musk runs a company called SpaceX, which is more than just pencil-and-paper design.
Mr. MUSK: I said we would launch a rocket, and we're going to launch a rocket in three weeks.
KESTENBAUM: After college, Musk started an Internet company and sold it for some $300 million. Now he's in the space business. It helps to be independently wealthy. Rockets, he says, are outside the comfort zone of most venture capitalists. His first customer is the United States Air Force. The upcoming launch will carry a satellite.
Mr. MUSK: And, I mean, it's quite noteworthy. This is the first truly privately developed rocket to reach orbit, assuming it does, ever.
KESTENBAUM: Musk will likely have competition. A company in Washington state, Kistler Aerospace, has similar ambitions, for instance. Musk says he imagines NASA may set a ceiling cost for flights and let companies compete to beat it. He says Russia right now delivers cargo to the space station for around $70 million.
Mr. MUSK: You know, I feel fairly optimistic about this effort. I think it's--there's a good chance it may yield more bang for the buck than NASA's gotten from any program in a long time, perhaps ever.
KESTENBAUM: The principles of rocketry were worked out long ago, but Musk says there are plenty of ways to bring the costs down. His company will launch from an island near the equator, where the Earth's spin will give the rocket a little boost. He plans to develop a fully reusable rocket, which will save money. And he says his company is small, which keeps overhead costs down and makes it a more innovative place in general.
Mr. MUSK: In order to show that meetings start on time, anyone who comes late has to pay $20.
KESTENBAUM: And that works, pretty much?
Mr. MUSK: It works extremely well. People hate paying $20.
KESTENBAUM: It's not as if NASA hasn't tried to be innovative. The original plan for the space shuttle was to make it more like an airline, squeeze in maybe 50 flights a year so the cost per flight would be low. Howard McCurdy says a busy flight schedule is probably crucial for NASA's new initiative to succeed. He's a space policy expert at American University, and he's hopeful the plan will work.
Mr. HOWARD McCURDY (American University): Well, I think it's exciting, and it certainly has worked in the aviation industry. You might not like the service, but the price of flying is substantially lower than it was before deregulation.
KESTENBAUM: It may be that getting to space reliably and safely is simply difficult and that the start-ups will have to confront the same problems NASA and its contractors did. McCurdy says that may be so, but there's only one way to find out.
Mr. McCURDY: What the heck? Let somebody else take a try. Maybe it's totally impossible, and we're stuck on this Earth forever, but a lot of us would like to believe that it is possible to move very large things and people into space, and so let the commercial firms take a try at it.
KESTENBAUM: NASA expects to release its plan within a month. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.