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NASA's Chief Backs Plan Privatizing Astronaut Travel

About 50 years ago, NASA introduced its first seven astronauts — the famous Mercury Seven. On Tuesday, the head of NASA introduced another seven people he called "space pioneers."

This time, they are all executives at companies that are working to develop private spaceships for astronauts. That's because under President Obama's new budget for NASA, the agency would cancel its own new rocket program and rely on commercial "space taxis" to get crews into orbit around the Earth.

"We are not abandoning human spaceflight, by any stretch of the imagination," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, speaking to reporters and space executives at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "I've got seven companies represented right here who are telling me that they're excited about finding ways to get humans off this planet and into low Earth orbit. That's human spaceflight."

Bolden asked executives from the seven companies to line up at the front of the room, saying, "Ladies and gentleman, these are the faces of the new frontier."

By turning to private companies to get astronauts to the nearby space station, Bolden said, NASA would be free to focus on "the greatest challenges that lie ahead." It could emphasize new technology development to get astronauts out farther into space, eventually to the moon or other destinations like near-Earth asteroids.

The agency will retire its aging space shuttles later this year, after just five more flights. And Obama's proposed new budget would kill off NASA's Constellation program, the system of rockets and capsules that was supposed to replace the shuttles and take astronauts first to the space station, and ultimately to the moon by 2020. Critics said Constellation was too costly and behind schedule.

To help boost the development of commercial space taxis, NASA has just awarded a total of $50 million in grants to five companies: Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.; the Space Exploration division of The Boeing Co., headquartered in Houston; Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz.; The Sierra Nevada Corp. of Centennial, Colo.; and United Launch Alliance, also located in Colorado.

NASA officials say it's not pie-in-the-sky dreaming to think that companies like these could someday have capsules capable of ferrying astronauts into space.

NASA already has major agreements with a couple of companies building unmanned spaceships designed to take cargo to the space station.

"We're just a little over one year away from the first launch of our cargo-carrying spacecraft on a new rocket that we're developing," says David Thompson, chairman and CEO of Orbital Sciences Corp. in Virginia.

And he says this cargo ship could be modified to carry people. "We believe it will take about four years from the time the cargo-carrying spaceship has proven itself, to upgrade it and to demonstrate that it is safe and reliable enough to carry astronauts," Thompson says.

Another company building a cargo ship for the station that could quickly turn into a human space taxi is SpaceX of California. Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who's now vice president for astronaut safety and mission assurance at SpaceX, says it will have a major rocket test this spring and hopes to have the first cargo flight within a year of that.

After that, Bowersox says, "the goal of SpaceX has always been to eventually carry crews into low Earth orbit."

He says SpaceX, and other firms, are up to this challenge.

"I think the odds are very, very high, that we'll have more than just one of the companies in that room building a capsule that will carry crews into low Earth orbit within the next five years," he says.

But some lawmakers worry about taking that gamble. And NASA officials are sure to face tough questions from Congress in the coming weeks.

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