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A key element of the White House’s revised direction for NASA is turning over the transportation of astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit to the private sector.

Recent funding moves by Congress could sharply restrict the ability of companies to provide those services.

The Obama administration’s original budget proposal for NASA, released almost six months ago, included $6 billion over the next five years to help fund the development of such systems. Proposed revisions to the proposal could cut this figure dramatically, to as little as $150 million over three years.

NASA would use the vehicles developed by private companies to get crews to and from the International Space Station. The companies operating such spacecraft could also use them to serve other customers as well. But the high cost of developing such systems–in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars–means that NASA would have to help fund their development.

When an independent panel, the Augustine Committee, reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight plans last year, several companies pitched commercial solutions for transporting astronauts. “Consistently, everyone said that without any government support, there was really no viable way for them to get a return on their investment,” said Phil McAlister last week at NewSpace 2010, a conference for space entrepreneurs held in Sunnyvale, CA. McAlister was executive director of the Augustine Committee and now works on commercial crew issues at NASA.

Mark Sirangelo, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group that supports the development of commercial space vehicles, noted during a panel at NewSpace 2010 that NASA is already buying such services from the Russians–purchasing seats on Soyuz spacecraft bound for the space station. “What we’re simply saying is: cannot U.S. industry do the same thing we’re contracting out to the Russians?”

Entrepreneurial companies such as SpaceX and Sirangelo’s own Sierra Nevada Corporation could be forced to cancel the development of crew transportation vehicles if government funding is reduced further. Even larger companies could struggle with development if funding is cut significantly.

Last week, at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, Boeing discussed its plans for a capsule called the CST-100. Boeing already has a potential non-NASA customer as well: Bigelow Aerospace, a Las Vegas-based company that is developing commercial space stations and has already launched two small prototypes. “The money that NASA has proposed investing in commercial crew allows us to close the business case,” John Elbon, manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program, said at Farnborough. Without that funding “it would be a difficult decision for us to proceed.”

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Tagged: Business, NASA, space, SpaceX, commercial space, NASA budget, NASA COTS

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