- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A White House commission will recommend that NASA give private corporations a broader role in space launches — and a greater share of the financial burden — to ensure President Bush’s goal of ultimately going to Mars, documents obtained yesterday said.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should overhaul its Apollo-era relationship with private industries and limit the space agency’s involvement to areas “where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity,” said a summary prepared by the president’s commission. The summary was obtained by the Associated Press; the final report is expected later this week.

The commission’s conclusions are aimed at easing the burden on taxpayers by increasingly commercializing the nation’s space program.

The administration has been sensitive to questions about the enormous cost of such a plan, noting that NASA spending — which would remain largely unchanged — amounts to less than 1 percent of the overall federal budget. Some analysts have said Mr. Bush’s goals ultimately could cost $1 trillion.

The commission determined that NASA should recognize “a far larger presence of private industry in space operations with the specific goal of allowing private industry to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA, and most immediately in accessing low-earth orbit.”

Analysts said that conclusion clearly signals intentions to hand over nearly all space launches — except manned missions — to private corporations.

“It carves out the launch of astronauts,” said George T. Whitesides, head of the National Space Society, a nonprofit group advocating space exploration. “I’m sure there will be a lot of debate about that over the coming weeks.”

Mr. Bush created the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy to help decide the best way to accomplish his new space vision, which includes flights to the moon and Mars in the next few decades.

The commission will encourage NASA to “aggressively use its contractual authority” to foster new technologies and ideas, and it wants NASA to assess current launch technologies, which would be handed over to the private sector.

Mr. Bush in January asked for a $1 billion boost to NASA’s budget over five years to fund the start of a new American campaign in space. Mr. Bush proposed establishing a lunar base within two decades and a manned landing on Mars sometime after 2030.

“Never let it be said that NASA tends to overestimate the cost of its missions,” said Douglas Osheroff, a widely renowned physicist who investigated the February 2003 breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia. “The cost in present-day dollars … I think it’s going to be $1 trillion.”

The conclusions by the White House commission were first disclosed by Space.com, an Internet news site for astronomy and space enthusiasts.

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