RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It was a half century ago that NASA introduced its first seven astronauts. The famous Mercury seven. Yesterday, the head of NASA introduced another seven people he called space pioneers. This time, the seven were all executives at companies working to develop private spaceships for astronauts. That's because under President Obama's new budget for the space agency, it would cancel its own rocket program and rely on commercial space taxis to get crews into orbit. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Charles Bolden is a former astronaut and the head of NASA. He spoke in front of reporters and space executives at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. and said the fears swirling around NASA's future just aren't true.
Mr. CHARLES BOLDEN (Head, NASA): We are not abandoning human spaceflight, by any stretch of the imagination.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even though NASA will retire the space shuttle this year and President Obama's proposed new budget would kill its replacement, NASA's Constellation program - that's the new system of rockets and capsules that NASA has been designing to take astronauts first to the space station and ultimately to the moon. Instead, under the new plan, NASA would concentrate on developing technologies to venture far out into space. And to get astronauts up to the nearby station it would just buy astronaut rides from private companies.
Mr. BOLDEN: I've got seven companies represented right here, who are telling me that they're excited about finding ways to get humans off this planet and into low Earth orbit. That's human spaceflight.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bolden asked executives from the seven companies to line up at the front of the room.
Mr. BOLDEN: Ladies and gentleman, these are the faces of the new frontier.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: To help boost the development of commercial space taxis, NASA has just awarded a total of $50 million in grants to five of the companies. They include the Sierra Nevada Corporation of Colorado, the Space Exploration division of The Boeing Company in Houston and Blue Origin from Washington State.
NASA officials say it's not pie-in-the-sky dreaming to think that companies like these could some day have capsules capable of ferrying astronauts into space. NASA already has agreements with a couple of companies building unmanned spaceships to take cargo to the space station. One of them is Orbital Sciences Corporation in Virginia. David Thompson is its CEO.
Mr. DAVID THOMPSON (Chief executive officer, Orbital Sciences): We're just a little over one year away from the first launch of our cargo-carrying spacecraft on a new rocket that we're developing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says this cargo ship could be modified to carry up people.
Mr. THOMPSON: We believe it will take about four years, from the time the cargo-carrying spaceship has proven itself, to upgrade it and to demonstrate that it is safe and reliable enough to carry astronauts.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Another company building a cargo ship for the station that could quickly turn into a human space taxi, is SpaceX of California. Ken Bowersox is a former astronaut who works as vice president for astronaut safety and mission assurance at SpaceX. He says they'll have a major rocket test this spring, and hope to have their first cargo flight within a year of that. After that, he says...
Mr. KEN BOWERSOX (Vice president for astronaut safety and mission assurance, SpaceX): The goal of SpaceX has always been to eventually carry crews into low Earth orbit.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says SpaceX, and other firms, are up to this challenge.
Mr. BOWERSOX: I think the odds are very, very high, that we'll have more than just one of the companies in that room building a capsule that will carry crews into low Earth orbit within the next five years.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But some lawmakers worry about taking that gamble. So NASA officials are sure to face tough questions from Congress in the coming weeks.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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