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Science & Space

White House receives space vision report

Panel says private sector will be central to space exploration

By Michael Coren

A silhouette of the Space Shuttle Discovery as it orbits above the Earth.
A silhouette of the Space Shuttle Discovery as it orbits the Earth.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration
White House
Space Programs
  • Spend $12 billion on new space exploration plan over next five years.
  • $1 billion will be new money, the rest reallocated from existing NASA programs.
  • Retire shuttle program by 2010
  • Develop new manned exploration vehicle
  • Launch manned mission to moon between 2015 and 2020
  • Build permanent lunar base as "stepping stone" for more ambitious missions
  • Complete commitments to International Space Station by 2010
    Source: White House
  • (CNN) -- The President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond handed its report to the White House on Wednesday, recommending that NASA change its basic structure to carry out the next generation of space travel.

    Edward Aldridge, chairman of the commission, said Vice President Dick Cheney accepted the report "positively."

    Aldridge praised America's space program as a symbol of U.S. leadership vital to economic growth, national security and the future of space exploration.

    "While discovery is the goal of space exploration, the journey is at least as important as the destination," he said.

    He added that NASA was already on its way to realizing changes outlined in the report.

    The commission's report recommends that NASA transform its basic structure to achieve manned exploration of the moon and Mars in coming decades.

    It calls for a slimmed-down space agency that contracts many of the space roles it once pioneered to private enterprise and streamline its own operations.

    "NASA's relationship to the private sector, its organizational structure, business culture, and management process -- all largely inherited from the Apollo era -- must be decisively transformed to implement the new ... space exploration vision," the commission stated.

    The 60-page report, "A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover," made its sweeping recommendations following five months of hearings from thousands of people including space luminaries, science fiction writers and citizens.

    The nine-member commission said commercialization of space should become "the primary focus" of the country's new space exploration vision. Given the proper encouragement, "an entirely new set of businesses can emerge that will seek profit in space," the report stated.

    It said that NASA should enter only areas where there is "irrefutable" evidence the government is solely qualified to perform space activities. The rest should become the business of a private space industry that is in its infancy despite billions in government expenditure over the last half century.

    For now, that means human space flight -- at least in Earth orbit and beyond -- will remain NASA's domain.

    The space agency's progress toward the stars faltered after the Apollo missions, which landed Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon, ended in 1972.

    The lunar program, with its unprecedented assembly of talent and innovation, later disbanded. The intervening years have not seen the same level of effort for human exploration of our solar system.

    The report, if adopted, will likely change the perception of thinking about space as a government endeavor. In fact, the report suggests that opening up the cosmos to humanity will only be accomplished by making much of it a for-profit business.

    "Sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge and lead the world in invention and innovation," the report stated. "This space industry will become a national treasure."

    To do that, NASA was advised to turn over most launch responsibilities to private firms, offer financial incentives and prizes for innovation, and foster small, entrepreneurial aerospace firms. Although the space agency now contracts many functions to private contractors, the panel said that arrangement had only produced a constellation of vendors rather than an independent industry.

    Certain functions would remain the responsibility of civil servants. Human space travel, "at least in the near-term," will be a key function of the government space program.

    It also suggested NASA's research and development hubs -- known as field centers -- become federally funded institutions managed by universities, non-profits and private businesses.

    The panel outlined the creation of permanent Space Exploration Steering Council to advice the president. The last such body formed under the first President Bush, but disbanded after he left office.

    In addition, the panel recommended three new NASA organizations be formed to address the long-standing problems within the agency.

    A technical advisory board would give independent advice to NASA leadership about technology and risk mitigation plans. It would address the kinds of failures that doomed the space shuttle Columbia after damage to the shuttle's wing led to its destruction on reentry.

    An accounting group would be set up to help ensure accurate estimates for NASA's infamously understated cost predictions.

    Finally a "high risk/high payoff" research division capable of tolerating periodic failures would help recapture the innovative spirit that characterized previous NASA manned initiatives.

    The commission called its space exploration goals "ambitious yet thoroughly achievable" and reaffirmed the agency's role as the drive behind humanity's goal to reach the stars.

    "The space exploration vision offers an extraordinary opportunity to ... engage the public in a journey that will shape the course of human destiny," it said.

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