Will NASA or private firms send us to outer space?

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (L) hold a news conference to introduce the design of the new Space Launch System on Capitol Hill Sept. 14, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: Congress did some budgeting this week. Lawmakers are trying to figure out how much they can spend next fiscal year. NASA could get as much as $17.7 billion.

With all the space shuttles headed to museums, that's a whole lotta money, as Sabri Ben-Achour reports from Washington.


Sabri Ben-Achour: So right now, the U.S. can’t send anyone to space. Nobody. We pay the Russians to do it...

Jim Dunstan: Upwards of $500 million a year.

Jim Dunstan calls himself a space lawyer he represents private launch providers. There are a couple other options. One is to have private companies take crews up to the space station -- sort of like Fedex for astronauts. Dunston likes this idea.

Dunstan: We can’t continue to operate the way we’re operating.  It is too expensive.

Private companies say they could carry people into space for at least half the price that NASA charges. But NASA’s also working on it’s own rocket to go beyond the space station. It’s a big rocket called the SLS.

Boeing is one of the contractors working on it, Jim Chilton helps head that up.

Jim Chilton: SLS stands for Space Launch System. It’s a rocket intended to explore beyond low-earth orbit. Think about it: If we don’t do SLS and we only do commercial, we service the Space Station until the Space Station is done, then what’s the space program?

SLS wouldn’t fully run till 2021, but the Obama administration says it could help get a ship to Mars or an asteroid one day. 

There’s a small problem: All these space ships are expensive.

Dunstan: Nobody who knows this well really thinks you can have both at the funding levels that are proposed.

Last year, Congress cut the commercial crew budget in half in favor of the big rocket. This year, the Obama administration wants to put some of that money back, and there’s a tug of war going on. Congress really likes the big rocket.

Dunstan: It’s one word. It’s jobs. Over the last decade, unfortunately, NASA has become a high-tech jobs program.

And while NASA may not be the most efficient, it does have experience, and some aren’t sure if these new space companies will come through. Scott Pace heads the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. 

Scott Pace: Human spaceflight is incredibly difficult and incredibly dangerous and so going directly to a reliance on commercial crew delivery systems is something that some people feel is very risky.

But if private companies don’t get off the ground soon, they may miss their opportunity get to space at all. The earliest a commercial crew would launch is 2017. The Space Station is set to close three years later.

I’m Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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