Thursday, August 13, 2009

Maybe U.S. should rethink shuttle plan

News this week that NASA plans to use $50 million in economic stimulus money to encourage proposals for commercial passenger transportation to space raises the fairly obvious question of why the U.S. space agency decided to retire its fleet of shuttles before developing an alternative. While it's certainly encouraging that NASA is finally serious about replacing the shuttle, which is scheduled to make its last trip in 2010, the U.S. space program will be forced to depend on Russia's Soyuz space capsule and rocket until a new craft is developed. "The main thing that the public should be taking note of is that right now we are (solely dependent) on the Russians (for space transports) after 2010," Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, one of the U.S. companies competing to build the next space vessel, told the Reuters international news service. Musk could have a point, considering that Russia has not been among the United States' most reliable allies. Then again, NASA relied on the Soyuz for transport to the international space station for years when the shuttle fleet was grounded. Musk's company, Space Exploration Technologies, and another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., already share a $500 million contract to develop and build rockets and capsules to bring supplies to the station. Other U.S. firms that have expressed an interest in the commercial passenger program include Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Airborne Systems, Boeing Co, Tether Applications, Retro Aerospace, Emergent Space Technologies, Davidson Technologies and Paragon Space Development Corp, Reuters said. NASA is planning a workshop for interested companies on Thursday in Houston.

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