Orbital outsourcing to fill space shuttle void

When Atlantis launched Friday, it had one primary mission: resupply the International Space Station. And when it returns to Earth, another spaceship is ready to take on that mission — for a profit.

A California firm has both a rocket and a $1.6 billion NASA contract that could have it supplying the ISS by the end of the year. Within the next six months, SpaceX plans to make its first test dock with the orbiting lab and deliver supplies, a major step in NASA’s strategy to remain in space without a spaceship of its own.

“We see Dragon and Falcon 9 as inheriting the Shuttle’s legacy,’’ SpaceX spokesman Bobby Block said of the company’s capsule and rocket, both built using nearly $300 million in NASA seed money.

The shift from NASA-owned ships to essentially rented vessels has sparked a wave of worry over the future of space travel in general. Perhaps nowhere is the anxiety more pronounced than in Brevard County, the heart of Florida’s fabled Space Coast.

Through attrition, layoffs and canceled contracts in a process that began in 2008, the retirement of the shuttle program is expected to cost the region $2.8 billion in economic activity, and about 13,000 jobs. United Space Alliance, a consortium of private contractors responsible for many of the shuttle operations, told Florida regulators they plan to eliminate more than 1,900 jobs within the next six weeks alone.

NASA promises the private-sector space flights will be a temporary break in the agency’s pursuit of cosmic destinations.A fledgling NASA program would build a new ship capable of returning to the Moon or landing on an asteroid. Both are seen as potential midway points for a manned mission to Mars. That kind of undertaking would likely bring the Space Coast its third big windfall, following the heydays of the Apollo and shuttle programs.

Until then, though, a certain amount of hope rests on spaceships for hire.

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