Group Says U.S. Is Not Pushing Private Space Effort Hard Enough

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NEW YORK — The United States needs to embrace commercial human spaceflight and scale down NASA’s role in flying astronauts to low Earth orbit, a new conservative organization says.

Members of the group called the Competitive Space Task Force argued at a press conference in Washington Feb. 8 that the country must be far more aggressive in stimulating commercial opportunities in space, while government-led space exploration should focus on more-advanced goals such as nuclear-powered rocket engines.

“I think the philosophy that the only way to space is through NASA’s front door is simply outdated,” said group member Robert Walker, a retired U.S. congressman who chaired the House Science Committee. “As long as NASA sticks to the idea that their primary goal is to get from Earth to low Earth orbit, we will have a problem.”

Instead, NASA should leave that job to the commercial sector, where companies like Space Exploration Technologies — the Hawthorne, Calif., company commonly known as SpaceX — already are starting to pick up the slack with their private spaceships and rockets, Walker said.

The group, which describes itself as a coalition of fiscal conservatives and free-market leaders, said renewed focus on the commercial space sector could not only save costs for NASA but reduce dependence on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft to carry U.S. astronauts to the international space station after the space shuttles are retired this year.

“America cannot simply sit in the passenger seat and expect to lead. We need to pilot the ship. We need to lead the way,” said group chairman Rand Simberg in a statement.

The Competitive Space Task Force plans to make a series of recommendations to Congress, including the advice that NASA use fixed-price, pay-for-performance contracts with private businesses to reduce the costs of its programs while opening up new commercial opportunities. It also advocates making the U.S. segment of the space station more accessible to commercial companies for scientific research.

“One has to look back at the history of exploration worldwide,” said task force member Andrew Langer of the Institute for Liberty, an organization that promotes small government. “State-sponsored exploration always gives way to private-sponsored exploration. It’s the entrepreneurs that always carry it to the next level. And we are at that point now.”

The task force’s briefing occurred during a busy time for the private spaceflight industry. On the same day, NASA contractor Alliant Techsystems announced a partnership with the European firm Astrium to convert part of NASA’s Ares 1 rocket — whose role in space was canceled by President Barack Obama last year — into a commercial launch vehicle.

The press conference also occurred the day before the Federal Aviation Administration began a two-day conference in Washington on the opportunities and challenges for private space vehicles.

NASA has been in a state of transition since Obama called in early 2010 for stopping development of a government-owned shuttle replacement — the Constellation program’s Ares family of rockets and Orion crew capsule — and relying on the commercial sector to fly astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

Obama’s 2011 budget, which languished before Congress, included $6 billion for a five-year commercial crew initiative

Members of the task force, however, say the Obama administration should do more.

In October 2010, the president signed into law a NASA authorization bill passed by Congress that represented somewhat of a compromise between NASA’s old path and the administration’s plan. Lawmakers have yet to provide funding for the initiatives outlined in the bill, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, and members of the Competitive Space Task Force said they hope some of the guidance can be altered through the appropriations process.

Commercial space advocates, for example, were not pleased that the enacted legislation directs NASA to build a shuttle- and Ares-derived heavy-lift rocket and government-owned crew capsule as a back up to commercial offerings.

“Much of what ended up in the authorization bill last year was the work of relatively few people,” Walker said in an interview. “If we can make more people a part of that discussion, we think that changing the direction of the policy is very possible going forward.”