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NASA Uses Stimulus Funding for Commercial Crew Concepts

The agency will invest $50 million in private companies with new ideas.

NASA announced today that it will invest $50 million of stimulus funding in the private sector for development and demonstration of crew spaceflight technologies. The money will be “competitively awarded” to the companies that develop safe, reliable and cost-effective systems and tools. The project is called Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) and is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program (C3PO).

The space agency’s outreach to the private sector is notable, especially with recent budget cuts and the uncertain future for human spaceflight. Also, many experts believe that NASA will have to use the private sector to its advantage because of the retirement of space shuttles and its ambitious plans to return humans to the moon by 2020 and then send them to Mars.

The current plan is to retire the shuttle in 2010 and fill the gap until NASA develops its next launch vehicle–the Ares rocket, which is scheduled to be ready in 2015–with commercial vehicles that could be used to carry cargo and, possibly, crew to the space station. NASA has already awarded a contract to SpaceX to use its rocket for trips to low earth orbit and has given a contract to Orbital Sciences for similar missions.

Once the Ares rocket is ready, says Lawrence Williams, vice president of SpaceX, NASA should use the vehicle for missions to the moon and eventually Mars, letting the commercial sector be responsible for the space station and other scientific missions.

The new project is an interesting advance in NASA’s efforts to reach out to the private sector, given that the Augustine panel, the committee charged with reviewing the future of US human spaceflight, has heard about commercial alternative ideas for launch vehicles, many of which were well received. According to NASA’s website, the project’s intent is to foster activity that leads to “job growth in engineering, analysis, design, and research and to economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created.”

NASA will hold a related conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston on August 13. Proposals are due September 22, and according to the 2009 Recovery Act, funds must be spent by September 30, 2010.

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