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STERN: Let business handle routine spacefaring

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NASA is spending too much of its precious budget on providing routine transport of astronauts to the space station, stymying progress on its more important task of sending astronauts to explore deep space.

Fortunately, the administration has proposed a game-changing solution that uses cost-effective private industry to take on the more mundane aspects of human transportation to low-Earth orbit, freeing up needed funds to send astronauts to explore deep space.

The administration's wise commercialization approach echoes an immensely successful path taken by NASA in the past.

Consider: At the dawn of the space age, all satellites were built and launched by governments. But very early on, communications satellites were encouraged to go commercial. The result: a $100-plus billion spinoff industry that employs thousands of workers to build the satellites, their ground stations, launchers and associated command and control infrastructure, and launches more satellites annually than any other form of space flight. That has opened up NASA resources to do other things with the money saved.

But equally importantly, the commercialization of space communications has also generated tens of thousands of direct and indirect private sector jobs, and a strong innovation cycle that's produced continuous improvement across the industry for more than four decades.

In contrast, nearly 50 years after the first human flights to orbit by Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, no commercial human spaceflight yet exists. Few in our parents' generation would have believed this, for at the outset of the space age, the commercialization of human transport to low-Earth orbit was widely expected. Remember the Pan Am shuttle in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?

Why has the commercialization of human transport to low-earth orbit been stymied? Are the complexities of communication satellites and commercial human transport really so different? Not fundamentally.

Are governments the only entities that can build human spacecraft? No, actually every human spacecraft ever built for NASA was built by private industry.

Is the scope of the investment required for human spaceflight too large for private industry? No - large satellite constellations cost more than the commercial crew systems envisioned to take astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit.

Of course, there are human lives at stake in space missions with crew, but commercial firms have lives at stake in industries as diverse as trucking, oil exploration, aviation and nuclear power. Why should space travel to destinations closer than most transcontinental airline flights be considered so different?

In fact, there really is no fundamental reason that human orbital transport to low-Earth orbit must remain the practice only of governments a full half-century after it began.

To the contrary, there are many reasons that the development of private, commercial human space flight vehicles in the United States is desirable for the nation. These include:

c Competition-driven innovation and price pressure that commercial practices foster can only make human space flight ever-more common, and U.S. leadership in this domain ever clearer.

c The spinoff development of related commercial companies supporting space tourism, orbital research stations and future applications pregnant with economic promise for aerospace industry and the United States.

c The generation of thousands of new, high-paying jobs across the U.S. to support commercial space lines.

c And the inherent robustness that comes with having a diverse suite of U.S. manned spaceflight systems to access space.

It is only by freeing up NASA from routine human transport to low-Earth orbit that we can afford to once again see American astronauts exploring distant worlds.

For this reason, if Congress doesn't adopt the administration's more economical, commercial crew to low-Earth orbit strategy, there is little chance we - rather than the Chinese, Russians and Indians - will be exploring worlds and making history in space in the future.

What are we waiting for?

S. Alan Stern, NASA's former associate administrator in charge of science, is the chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation's Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.

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