STANFORD -- If all goes well, private entrepreneurs will launch a vibrant new space industry into lofty heights -- replacing the space shuttle, lowering the cost of reaching orbit, creating a space tourism industry, mining asteroids, and even exploring Mars.
Engineers, economists, future astronauts and top Obama Administration officials gathered at Stanford University on Friday at a "Space Entrepreneurship" conference, hoping to kindle a new vision for space through privatized spaceflight.
"We are placing our bets on American industry," said Lori Garver, deputy administrator for NASA. "Cargo flights under way are developing the capability of launching people to space from the U.S. on privately owned and operated rockets over the next three years."
Added FAA's George Nield: "In the next few years, we will see multiple companies on a regular and frequent basis completing suborbital human space flight."
President Obama has proposed a sweeping upheaval of NASA's human spaceflight program, first outlined in his 2011 budget request: canceling the current program that would send astronauts back to the oon and investing in commercial companies to provide transportation to orbit.
Rather than operate its own shuttles, NASA would buy space for its astronauts on commercial "space taxis." NASA would shift its focus to unmanned exploration of the mysteries of deep outer space.
The plan has been cheered by many so-called "New Space" advocates, who assert that traditional NASA programs are too big, too expensive and too slow. But major challenges remain.
"Commercialization can suddenly become an important and maybe leading part of our space exploration," said Ward Hanson of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the nonpartisan economic policy research organization, which sponsored the conference. "We hope to bring engineers, economists and policy makers together ... to think through the regulatory barriers that will help develop that sector."
Participants described various efforts in the burgeoning commercial space industry:
The Mojave-based Virgin Galactic takes passengers 50,000 feet up on its 1.5-hour flight aboard its "mother ship," then launches them into outer space at four times the speed of sound -- for four to five minutes -- before returning to Earth. The company is testing the system now. More than 500 people have already signed up, at $200,000 a seat.
Another company, XCOR Aerospace, in Midland, Texas, offers a trip up to 100,000 feet -- the engines turn off after reaching Mac 3.5 -- then passengers coast for several minutes, before gliding back down. A test program starts this summer. It costs $95,000.
Companies are also stepping in to launch much smaller and lower-flying satellites, capable of quickly measuring all the agricultural acreage on Earth, for instance. There also is a role for "food trucks" to serve these satellites.
"We are beginning the dialogue of the emerging space sector," said Stanford aeronautics professor G. Scott Hubbard, who conceived the Mars Pathfinder mission.
"It is an American approach to things," he said. "Entrepreneurship can lead to the future growth of a business ecosystem."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.