Sunday, February 5, 2012

NASA, SpaceX Launch is Huge for Commercial Vehicles in Space

SpaceX launch will be a key test for NASA
Who will get NASA back into space
WASHINGTON – NASA controllers and curious spectators won't be the only ones watching the upcoming launch of the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station. 

Lawmakers, administration officials and other policy makers with a role in deciding NASA spending will be watching as well.

The launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, now scheduled for April, is billed as a demonstration mission to show the world a private company can safely deliver cargo to the space station.

But the launch also can be seen as a test of whether it was a good idea to retire the shuttle and have the private sector take over the job of carrying crew and cargo to the space station. SpaceX is one of four companies receiving government funding to develop the new spacecraft.

John Logsdon, founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at GW University, calls the launch "a really high-stakes event … symbolic of a new way of doing business in space."

NASA says the space program is not drifting aimlessly, the
SpaceX launch will be proof of NASA's new direction!
"It's very important," agreed Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, top Republican on the Senate science committee, which oversees NASA. "Every step that's taken toward fulfilling the role (private companies) have been given by the administration is important."

Hutchison speaks for congressional lawmakers who believe the Bush and Obama administrations were, in her words, "way too aggressive in turning over everything to the private sector and basically dismantling the expertise that we have built through all the years at NASA."

SpaceX initially planned the launch — with no crew on board — for February 7, but pushed back the date to at least April while it conducts additional tests.

Recent missteps by Russia's space agency, which now provides rides to U.S. astronauts, add to the pressure to speed development by American companies. NASA announced Thursday that Russia's March 30 launch to bring crew to the space station has been delayed until May 15 because a descent capsule was damaged during a test.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said such delays are a routine — and necessary — part of a successful mission.

"When you're dealing with human spaceflight, you have to make it right, and this is the predecessor to the human space flight," said Nelson, who rode the shuttle and is hoping to attend the SpaceX launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "NASA has always taken the approach that you walk before you run."

The Obama administration has a lot riding on the launch's success and on the progress other private space companies are reporting as part of the shuttle replacement program known as the Commercial Crew program.

Last year, the president proposed spending $850 million on the program in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Congress approved $406 million.

As part of its fiscal 2013 budget proposal due out Feb. 13, the administration is expected to ask for more money for the commercial crew program than it's getting from Congress this year.

NASA officials say that level of funding forces the U.S. to continue relying chiefly on Russia to transport astronauts to the space station beyond 2016. Under the current contract, each round trip costs American taxpayers about $60 million.

Hard feelings have developed between some lawmakers and NASA over the Commercial Crew program. Hutchison and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, threatened to subpoena records from NASA in June because they didn't believe the agency was providing straight and timely answers about the program.

NASA, SpaceX Launch is Huge for Commercial Vehicles in Space
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