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Private companies stand ready to fill void left by end to shuttles


SpaceX launches a Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket Dec. 8, 2010, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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MIAMI -- When the space shuttle Atlantis launched July 1, it had one primary mission: Resupply the International Space Station. And not that it has returned to Earth, another spaceship is ready to take on that mission -- for a profit.

A California company has both a rocket and a $1.6 billion NASA contract that could have it supplying the space station by the end of the year.

Within six months, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, plans to make its first test dock with the orbiting lab and deliver supplies, a major step in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's strategy to remain in space without a spaceship of its own.

"We see Dragon and Falcon 9 as inheriting the Shuttle's legacy," Bobby Block, a SpaceX spokesman, said of the company's capsule and rocket, both built using nearly $300 million in NASA seed money.

The Falcon 9 is being built in Merritt Island, Fla., on the east coast about 45 miles southeast of Orlando.

The shift from NASA-owned ships to essentially rented vessels has sparked a wave of worry over the future of space travel in general. Perhaps nowhere is the anxiety more pronounced than in Brevard County, the heart of Florida's fabled Space Coast.

Through attrition, layoffs, and canceled contracts in a process that began in 2008, the retirement of the shuttle program is expected to cost the region $2.8 billion in economic activity and about 13,000 jobs.

United Space Alliance, a consortium of private contractors responsible for many of the shuttle operations, told Florida regulators they plan to eliminate more than 1,900 jobs within six weeks.

NASA promises that the private-sector space flights will be a temporary break in the agency's pursuit of cosmic destinations.

A fledgling NASA program would build a ship capable of returning to the moon or landing on an asteroid. Both are considered potential midway points for a manned mission to Mars. That kind of undertaking probably would bring the Space Coast its third big windfall, following the heydays of the Apollo and shuttle programs.

"That's our opportunity to create more opportunity for jobs postshuttle, where in the Apollo days we didn't have that chance," said Lynda Weatherman, head of the Economic Development Commission for Florida's Space Coast.

She was referring to the lean years at the Kennedy Space Center, as the United States ended its Moon missions on Apollo rockets while gearing up for the shuttle trips to Earth's orbit.

Space "tourism" gets much of the attention on private spaceflight. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has collected $57 million in deposits for flights 60 miles into the sky, high enough to experience weightlessness and see the Earth's curvature, a spokesman said. The spacecraft is going through tests before it can make an inaugural flight; tickets cost $200,000.

But replacing the shuttle has prompted a more high-stakes space race as companies compete to snag contracts to deliver cargo and crew.

Until private firms are cleared for human space travel, NASA plans to pay Russia to take astronauts to the space station. The cost is estimated at $65 million a seat. SpaceX is testing a vessel it says can do the job for about $20 million a passenger. Even the space program's biggest supporters concede that private companies probably can put payloads and astronauts into orbit more quickly and at lower cost than NASA can.

Space flight has become routine enough that the margins are squeezable. "It's still dangerous," said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at Kennedy Space Center, a research center run by the University of Central Florida. "It's important. It's not cheap. But we've been doing it for 50 years. The Russians have been doing it longer. The Chinese can do it. The Indians will be doing it in two years."

SpaceX is run by Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, the leading processor of online transactions. Among its competitors for NASA contracts for human spaceflight: Blue Origin LLC, a company based in the state of Washington and backed by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc. NASA awarded Blue Origin about $25 million in seed money to help develop a spaceship for the postshuttle era.

Two other companies are in the running to take over the shuttle's delivery route to the space station: Sierra Nevada Corp., of Sparks, Nev., and Boeing Co., long one of NASA's primary contractors.

"The space shuttle had its job. It was like a big moving truck," said Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada chairman, referring to the shuttle's central role in assembling the space station. "Now you've moved into your house. You just want an SUV to get you around town."

Under pressure from lawmakers in Florida and other states with large space industries, NASA is pursuing a vehicle that would let it take astronauts to the space station in the event a private contractor can't.

Known as Orion, the "multipurpose" vehicle's main function would be to transport astronauts beyond Earth's orbit for the kind of budget-busting missions that defined America's space program since the 1960s.

"There is no money in space exploration," said Ritch Workman, a state representative from Melbourne and chairman of the Florida Space Caucus.

Advocates of NASA's commercial contracts expect the agency to fuel a new wave of entrepreneurship in space. Bigelow Aerospace, owned by Robert Bigelow, founder of the Budget Suites hotel chain, is counting on a private craft to haul customers to a space station it is trying to lease.

"We will provide a comprehensive turn-key experience including our clients' transportation and on-orbit needs," reads Bigelow's Web site. "Whether you are a sovereign nation developing an astronaut program, a corporation interested in microgravity research, or an individual with a desire to experience space, we can help you achieve your goals."

Spacecraft companies think they can leverage NASA dollars into a larger portfolio of private clients, from satellite operators to zero-gravity vacation homes.

"NASA is like the anchor tenant at the mall," said Sierra Nevada's Mr. Sirangelo. "They're the [Neiman Marcus] that comes in and signs the big lease, and you can build the mall around them."

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