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Space flight privatization getting ready for launch

CHICAGO – The final countdown has begun to the end of manned spaceflights by NASA, leaving some to fret that the nation’s dreams of reaching for the stars may be in jeopardy under President Barack Obama’s controversial plan to commercialize space flight.

Obama on April 15 will make the case for the most radical change of direction in NASA’s history, wading into a debate laden with emotion, big bucks and ambitions that united a nation in a race to the moon a half-century ago.

After the space shuttle’s aging orbiters are retired over the next year, NASA would exit the business of blasting astronauts into orbit under Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request.

NASA already had planned to book seats on Russia’s rockets until the next U.S. space vehicle is ready to launch later this decade. Obama is gambling that Chicago-based Boeing Co. or other nascent aerospace firms will develop the shuttle’s replacement more quickly and cheaply than NASA.

If he’s right, the president would provide a huge boost to space entrepreneurs, potentially unleashing the greatest new engine for innovation since the Internet, said aerospace analyst Marco Caceres.

If he’s wrong, the U.S. could be left humiliatingly dependent on Russia and China, its Cold War rivals, for space flight for much of the decade, critics warn.

That prospect is profoundly disturbing to Apollo veterans like Gene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon in 1972.

“If we allow his budget to become the rule of the land, we in this country no longer have a manned space program,” Cernan told the Chicago Tribune. “In terms of going on to the moon or Mars, that’s a generation away unless there are cooler heads in Congress.”

The debate swirling around NASA centers on how to get the biggest bang out of the space agency’s research at a time of soaring budget deficits. Should NASA pick a target that will galvanize the nation, like landing a man on Mars and its moons, then develop the technology to reach Earth’s neighbor through a series of ever more ambitious and costly missions?

Or should the U.S. break with a half-century of tradition, as Obama wants? While China and India pour billions into duplicating America’s lunar glories of the 1960s, NASA would dream up new ways to propel humans deep into space, while stepping up research on the International Space Station to help astronauts survive lengthy journeys to Mars or asteroids.

“Imagine the trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of ‘firsts’; and imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. said as he unveiled the strategic shift Feb. 1.

Obama would fund private contractors by scrapping NASA’s current space exploration program, Constellation, writing off the $9 billion already spent to return to the moon and eventually land humans on Mars. The president proposed to boost NASA’s $19 billion budget by $6 billion over the next five years, with most of the increase used to seed commercial development.

However, critics claim that without an exploration program to keep NASA’s goals in focus, the agency’s research will devolve into a “science fair” whose funding eventually will be gutted by Congress without fear of political repercussions.

“Everybody who cares about the space program is skeptical about the president’s space agenda,” said Loren Thompson, a defense and aerospace analyst with the Lexington Institute. “It’s not that the agenda is pointless, but it sounds like a pretext for abandoning goals.”

Boeing is caught in the middle of the debate, because it is a major contractor for the Constellation program, space station and shuttle and is angling to develop the orbiter’s commercial replacement.

If Constellation is canceled and the shuttle retired, Boeing will lose billions of dollars in revenue and could lay off as many as 1,450 people. It’s unclear whether the aerospace manufacturer will be able to offset those losses, Boeing officials said.

NASA officials are confident of their plan. The first commercial cargo flight to the space station is slated for 2011, and NASA thinks contractors could likely quickly develop simplified “space taxis” to ferry crew members to low-Earth orbit.

A number of compromises are being floated in Congress to tide NASA over until the commercial sector is ready to take over, including extending the shuttle program.

NASA, meanwhile, plans to purchase six seats each year on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for as long as it takes the private sector to get a rocket ready to launch humans safely.

Cernan thinks this will be longer, tougher and costlier than the president anticipates.

“You just watch China, Russia, India and some of these other countries out there,” he said. “They’re going to do it, and we’re not going to like it one bit.”