LEAGUE CITY, Texas — Commercial space station cargo ships, crew ferries and other spacecraft will prove a vital cog in NASA’s engine for future space exploration, the agency’s top official said Nov. 15.

“We want to be able to buy these services from American industry,” NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the American Astronautical Society during its annual conference here, adding that the first space station resupply proposals from commercial providers are expected this autumn . “It will not be government business as usual,” he said.

Commercial cargo- and crew-transportation services to the international space station are just the tip of what Griffin dubbed “the dawn of the true space age,” an era which could include private fueling depots in low-Earth orbit to aid NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon.
“It is exactly the type of enterprise which should be left to industry and the commercial marketplace,” Griffin said.

Relying on commercial space services to augment its own infrastructure may be a boon for NASA, said Courtney Stadd, a former NASA chief of staff.

“NASA cannot succeed alone in pursuing the exploration vision,” Stadd said , adding that the agency has its hands full sustaining the space station while working to develop new cargo and human-rated spacecraft and rockets for Moon and Mars missions. “It’s a breathtakingly full dance card.”

The agency should embrace partnerships with industry and the international community because “any misstep in human spaceflight could spell a very long hiatus in human-driven exploration in the U.S.,” Stadd said.

NASA already has eaten into its international space station research budget to fund the facility’s completion as well as development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) — the planned successor to the space shuttle.

“We can afford to build the station and finish its assembly, or we can afford to use what’s there for research,” Griffin said. “But we cannot afford to simultaneously do both.”

NASA’s three remaining space shuttles are slated for retirement by 2010. Between now and then, agency officials hope to launch 19 flights — 18 for space station construction or resupply. The additional shuttle mission is earmarked to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

“The station is a great proving ground for exploration,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator of space operations, adding that by the time the orbiting laboratory is complete it will have a mass of about 363,000 kilograms — roughly the same as a potential Mars transit vehicle under the space agency’s exploration vision. “We’ve learned a lot about operating internationally and a lot about continuous operation, all of which applies directly to exploration.”

The space station currently is about the size of a three-bedroom home and only half-built as NASA works to resume space shuttle flights.

NASA space shuttles are the only vehicles capable of launching the hefty station components such as the European Columbus module. Russian spacecraft have kept the orbital platform manned and supplied with the shuttle fleet grounded.

The flight this summer of Space Shuttle Discovery on NASA’s first mission since the February 2003 Columbia accident revealed that the agency still had not resolved the problem of dangerous chunks of insulating foam breaking away from the orbiter’s external tank during liftoff. As a result, the fleet was once again grounded.

NASA’s second post-Columbia flight — Space Shuttle Atlantis’ STS-121 mission — currently is expected to occur no earlier than May 2006. But it will be the flight after that, STS-115, which will once again resume international space station construction.

Initial shuttle flights to the space station will deliver truss and solar-array segments necessary to power large components such as Columbus and Japan’s Kibo experiment module.