NASA takes one giant leap into commerical space flight

Thursday - 5/17/2012, 12:05pm EDT

Lori Garver, deputy administrator, NASA

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After yet another delay Saturday morning, NASA hopes to launch the first U.S. commercial space flight, possibly as early as Tuesday. A capsule built by the company SpaceX will take off from Cape Canaveral and head to the International Space Station. If successful, it will be a milestone in NASA's plan to replace its space shuttle program with commercial carriers.

"We've been launching things into space for 50 years," said NASA's Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. "It's time we did trust our industry to be able to lead the way."

Garver spoke to The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Thursday about the upcoming launch.

Lori Garver, deputy administrator, NASA

The rocket will carry the Dragon capsule into space, on a mission to deliver supplies of food and water to the International Space Station.

"It is something we do need since the retirement of the space shuttle," Garver said. "This has been our plan for replacing the space shuttle, which was so much larger and built the space station by carrying the modules."

The Falcon 9 mission is a smaller, much more focused effort that allows NASA to reduce the cost of space transportation by using the commercial sector, which can open new markets and create new jobs in the U.S.

"We've been working very closely with SpaceX, who is the industry partner on this mission," Garver said, adding that the company has been reviewing all of the flight-readiness activities that used to be NASA's job.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft sits atop the Falcon 9 rocket at the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (SpaceX photo)

Garver admitted to being "very excited" about the launch, which will usher in a new era of space travel for the U.S., one in which private companies design and build NASA's spacecraft, with the agency acting as just a single customer. With the current launch, SpaceX supplied the entire rocket, from its Merlin engines up.

"That just shows you how robust this activity is, that there are markets for launching satellites, defense payloads and NASA science payloads, in addition, to the space station, astronauts and cargo," Garver said. "That is what has allowed this company SpaceX, headed by [Chief Designer] Elon Musk, to invest in an entire rocket system with the Dragon being the test for us with this capsule."

Both the Falcon rocket and the Dragon capsule are not new systems. Both have flown into space before. But this will be the first time that Dragon will dock with the International Space Station.

Privatizing space travel will not only help NASA to save money, it will also help create new jobs for a very specialized workforce.

"The space shuttle program carried us for 30 years and we had a dedicated workforce," Garver said. "President Bush announced in 2003 that we would be retiring the Space Shuttle. [President] Obama extended it for two flights and at least a year so that people could transition. The whole idea of having a commercial company be able to launch this is to grow markets and increase our U.S., high-paying jobs in this area."

"As NASA is going farther, private industry takes this over, and that allows us to fly more often and win back market share, and hire, not only those people back, but create new jobs in an industry that doesn't just count on the government," Garver said.

Currently, two companies are vying for NASA's cargo delivery contract and four are competing for the crew delivery to the space station.

NASA is planning for its next round of competition this summer, which would lead to a private company transporting a crew to the International Space Station. The competing companies have assured NASA that private delivery of a crew could happen within three to five years.

"It's a very exciting time," Garver said.

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