If all goes well, NASA may soon be renting privately owned spacecraft to fly its astronauts into space. The agency reportedly is just weeks away from announcing contracts with one or more commercial firms to build a new, reusable orbital vehicle capable of ferrying crews from U.S. launch sites to the International Space Station and returning them safely home. Such a deal would give a huge boost to the U.S. commercial space industry as well as end NASA's three-year dependence on Russian spacecraft to reach the ISS.

For decades NASA owned as well as operated the spacecraft and rocket boosters used to launch U.S. crews into space. But that changed in 2011, when the last of the agency's 1980s-era space shuttles was retired. At that point NASA found itself with no way of crewing space station missions except by renting seats on Russian-owned Soyez craft. That turned out to be expensive — the Russians charge up to $70 million a pop for flights aboard their vehicles — and it also left America's manned space program hostage to the political ups and downs (so to speak) of U.S.-Moscow relations, which have been in free fall recently over the crisis in Ukraine.

That's why with the Obama administration's encouragement, NASA is proposing to contract with private aerospace companies in the U.S. not only to build the next generation of manned spacecraft but also to lease rather than sell them to the agency (and possibly to other customers) on a per flight basis. The arrangement is a little like picking up a rental car at the airport: The companies would retain ownership of the vehicles, charge a fee for their use and be responsible for maintenance and repairs.

NASA believes it will be a lot less expensive to get its crews into space if it rents rather than owns the vehicles to send them there. All of the companies bidding on the contract — which include traditional industry giants like Boeing and Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, as well as startups such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada — say they can do the job for less than the Russians are charging.

Spaceflight may never be cheap, but even if the companies' cost estimates ultimately prove too low, NASA will still have a way of launching crews into orbit on its own. Moreover, as with any new technology, the costs of such ventures eventually will come down as the market for private vehicles expands and becomes more competitive.

The Obama administration is betting that will happen sooner rather than later as the new technologies spur the commercial exploitation of space. NASA and the companies it's working with think there is a viable market for space tourism for well-heeled adventurer types that could eventually include orbiting hotels built on privately owned space stations.

Virgin Galactic has already booked more than 500 seats aboard its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, at an initial price of $200,000 per flight. The craft will loft passengers to an altitude of 360,000 feet, more than six miles above the internationally recognized boundary between Earth and space. And one ambitious firm, Space Adventures Ltd., is even planning a future circumlunar mission to the moon for the oil-rich sheiks, Russian oligarchs and Western hedge-fund managers who can afford the $100 million ticket fare.

Of course, those kinds of prices fuel the skeptics who argue the seemingly prohibitive costs of what's called "personal spaceflight" will forever prevent it from becoming a viable commercial enterprise. Yet much the same was also said of the nascent airline industry during the 1920s and '30s, when NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, sponsored research and development of technologies aimed at turning the primitive aircraft of that era into a reliable national air transportation system.

It's also useful to recall that tourism played a crucial role in the early development of commercial aviation. Pan American Airways, for example, got its start as a humble air taxi outfit ferrying thirsty Prohibition-era tourists from Florida to the bars and nightclubs of Havana. True, the number of people who could afford such luxury were confined to the wealthy elite of their day. But in relative terms they probably were no more deterred by the price of a airline ticket than today's billionaire corporate executives would be by that of a ticket into orbit — especially if the amenities include a hotel bar where they can sip a cocktail at their leisure.


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