WASHINGTON — Getting to space is about to be outsourced.
The Obama administration today will propose in its new budget spending billions of dollars to encourage private companies to build, launch and operate spacecraft for NASA and others. Uncle Sam would buy its astronauts a ride into space just like hopping in a taxi.
The idea is that getting astronauts into orbit, which NASA has been doing for 49 years, is getting to be so old hat that someone other than the government can do it. Going private would free the space agency to do other things, such as explore beyond Earth's orbit, do more research and study the Earth with better satellites. And it would spur a new generation of private companies to innovate.
But there's some concern about that — from former NASA officials worried about safety and from congressional leaders worried about lost jobs. Some believe space is still a tough, dangerous enterprise not to be left to private companies out for a buck.
Proponents of private space, an idea that has been kicking around for nearly 20 years, point to the airline industry in its infancy. Initially the Army flew most planes. But private companies eventually started building and operating aircraft, especially when they got a guaranteed customer in the U.S. government to deliver air mail.
That's what NASA would be: a guaranteed customer to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station through 2020. It would be similar to the few years that NASA paid Russia to fly astronauts on its Soyuz after the Columbia accident in 2003.
"With a $6 billion program you can have multiple winners. You'll literally have your Blackberry, your iPhone and your Android phone all competing for customers in the marketplace," said John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.