- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

NASA will turn 50 on Tuesday, boasting five decades of historic events and intrepid research and fueling the lofty hopes of optimistic entrepreneurs who think that practical space tourism to the moon, Mars and beyond is only a matter of time, money and public interest.

Entrepreneurs are gathering at conferences across the country to discuss how to turn the knowledge NASA amassed in its 50 years into profitable businesses, such as by selling spacesuits, providing suborbital spaceflights or sending privately funded robots to the lunar surface.

The main thing, they agree, is finding the customers with the right stuff.

“Go out and find that market,” S. Alan Stern, who until March was associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told a group of entrepreneurs gathered in the Crystal City section of Arlington earlier this month.

From a scientific marvel of comic-book legend, space travel is evolving into the stuff of initial public offerings.

When the Watergate scandal and World War II fade from memory, the first manned moon landings will capture a bigger place in history, Mr. Stern said.

The Mercury missions sent the first astronauts into space, and Apollo got them to the moon, but now entrepreneurs must lead the way to space travel.

“We cannot wait on the government,” Mr. Stern said as an image of the Starship Enterprise flashed on a conference room screen at the Doubletree Hotel Crystal City.

As NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander continues to collect soil samples from the Red Planet that may contain frozen water, the bold predictions that led to the first rocket launches at Cape Canaveral in the late 1950s continue, just with a new generation.

The new generation

The next ventures are planned to build permanent manned space stations, first on the moon and then on Mars.

The Constellation program that is taking shape at NASA facilities nationwide is developing multistage rockets and lunar landers that look much like the Apollo spacecraft that made one giant leap to the lunar surface.

“The laws of physics haven’t changed,” said Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokeswoman.

The biggest difference is the mission NASA has in mind.

While the Apollo missions sent two men at a time to the lunar equator to collect rocks for a couple of days, Constellation will send crews of four to the south pole.

They will start with weeklong missions, building in increments a permanent outpost designed to house crews for six months at a time.

“The south pole is actually a very interesting place,” Ms. Schierholz said.

Unlike the day and night cycles along the lunar equator, “If you go to the polar region, there are areas that are exposed to the sun almost all the time, so you can get solar power,” she said.

NASA wants to learn from the outpost how humans can adapt to the harsh environment of low gravity, no air, unfiltered solar radiation and deadly subzero temperatures - in other words, an environment that’s a lot like the one on Mars.

“It’s approximately a three-day trip to the moon,” Ms. Schierholz said. “Mars, on the other hand, is six months just to get there, which is why we think it’s a good idea to go to the moon first.”

A long road

NASA’s journey so far has been arduous, expensive and at times fatal.

The agency’s budget this fiscal year is $17.3 billion, much smaller than the $810.5 billion that the federal government provided in the past 50 years when the amount is adjusted for inflation.

Some of the money produced nothing more than billion-dollar fireworks in the sky that fell to Earth.

Other parts of the funding redefined scientific understanding of the universe and inspired spinoff products such as magnetic resonance imaging, electronic miniaturization of computers and fire-resistant coatings to protect firefighters and structures.

If there is a single event that led to the formation of NASA, it was the Oct. 4, 1957, launch of Sputnik I, the first Soviet satellite.

Its low-Earth orbit took Sputnik directly over the U.S., giving Americans visual evidence that the Soviets might gain a military advantage in the Cold War and that the U.S. could lose its technological superiority.

Several months of hearings and debates in Congress resulted in an agreement that a new federal agency was needed to lead U.S. exploration of space.

On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA.

NASA started with four laboratories and about 80 employees, including Wernher von Braun, now considered one of the fathers of the U.S. space program. He gained his early experience by leading Nazi Germany’s development of rockets that rained on London during the blitz of World War II.

After the war, Mr. von Braun became a naturalized American citizen.

NASA’s first rockets were launched within months under the banner of Project Mercury, which determined the feasibility of human spaceflight.

After a few explosions of unmanned rockets and the first chimpanzees in suborbital flight, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. His suborbital flight was over in 15 minutes, but was heralded as a significant breakthrough.

His mission was followed on Feb. 20, 1962, by Friendship 7, on which astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Mr. Glenn’s return was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Project Gemini replaced Project Mercury in 1962 to lay the scientific foundation for a jump to the moon.

It featured the first spacewalks, with astronauts floating freely while tethered to the capsules that carried them into orbit. The missions also gathered data on weightlessness, docking of spacecraft and long duration in space.

At the same time, NASA launched the satellites that provided live television feeds and phone calls around the planet, spied on Soviet military installations and allowed meteorologists to generate more reliable weather forecasts.

A giant leap

Then came the Apollo program in 1963, along with the folklore so commonly tied to NASA history.

In 1967, Apollo I ended with a fire that killed all three astronauts on board its command module during a training exercise after an electrical short-circuit at Cape Canaveral.

Unmanned flights followed to test the systems necessary for a moon landing. They included Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, which successfully orbited the moon and returned photographs of potential landing sites.

Apollo 11 landed the first men on the moon on July 20, 1969. It was followed by five more manned moon landings and astronauts bringing back more than 800 pounds of lunar rock and soil samples. In 1970, an onboard explosion prevented Apollo 13 from landing on the moon, but the astronauts brought back photographs and footage of the dark side of the moon.

The moon flights were followed by Skylab, a 75-ton space station that orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979. Astronauts visited the station three times to study microgravity and observe solar flares.

As Skylab’s orbit descended, NASA hoped to keep the project alive by sending a booster rocket to the space station. Instead, the agency faced a lack of interest and funding and let Skylab fall into the Pacific Ocean.

NASA next made the space shuttle the workhorse of its program.

Since the Columbia launch on April 12, 1981, shuttle flights have allowed astronauts to put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and build the more than $100 billion International Space Station.

The shuttle program has suffered two major disasters: the 1986 explosion of the Challenger shortly after takeoff and the 2003 destruction of Columbia upon re-entry into the atmosphere. In both accidents, all crew members were killed.

While the shuttle program showed what could be accomplished in Earth’s orbit, NASA started launching probes to determine what humans could do on the moon and Mars.

Beyond the moon

On Jan. 14, 2004, 10 days after NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit landed, President Bush announced the federal government’s “Vision for Space Exploration” program, which set an aggressive exploration schedule to return people to the moon by 2018, this time for a permanent settlement that would be a steppingstone to Mars by 2037.

It also calls for the shuttles to be retired by 2010 and replaced by Orion, a program of reusable manned rockets that could dock with the International Space Station and leave Earth’s orbit.

“We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own,” Mr. Bush said during a speech at NASA headquarters.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is the first mission in NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration, scheduled to launch later this year. It will circle the moon’s poles while collecting data about their environment before the manned flights. The orbiter is being built at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Plans for other unmanned flights cover about half the solar system with explorations of Pluto, Jupiter’s moons and the sun.

A space odyssey

All those plans are spinning off dreams for the near future, which brought the entrepreneurs to Crystal City this month.

Odyssey Moon Limited, a company planning private spaceflights to the moon, had some of the highest aspirations at the conference.

“Odyssey Moon will be providing frequent and low-cost access to the moon, sort of like a shipping line,” said Robert Richards, the company’s chief executive officer.

The company has hired MDA Space Missions of Canada, a NASA contractor, to design the technology for the missions.

Odyssey Moon announced its first customer in March, when Space Services Inc., a company that seeks to deliver the cremated ashes of its customers to the moon, signed a launch-services agreement for a flight. Odyssey Moon plans its first moon flight by July 2011.

“There might be an Odyssey Mars,” Mr. Richards said. “We have to start with Odyssey Moon.”

XCOR Aerospace, a California-based company that wants to sell flights into suborbital space, plans its first commercial launch in 2010.

Its first Lynx rocket plane would carry one pilot and one passenger on 30-minute round-trip flights several times a day, at an altitude of 200,000 feet. Commercial airliners, by way of comparison, fly at an altitude of 30,000 to 40,000 feet.

The passengers would spend only a few minutes in the darkness of space, but XCOR executives hope they would be willing to pay about $100,000 per flight.

Compared with the $30 million to $40 million for NASA to launch astronauts into space, XCOR is offering “a little microgravity time” at a bargain, said Douglas Graham, XCOR spokesman.

In the near future, the company wants to develop a higher-flying space plan and to contract with NASA to offer astronauts relatively cheap flights into low orbits.

If XCOR gets a NASA contract to provide low orbital flights, “less of its budget will be eaten up in providing transportation and more of it will go for science,” Mr. Graham said. “I think that’s the direction NASA is going in.”

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