Boeing said that it was entering the space tourism business, an announcement that could bolster the Obama administration's efforts to transform the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into an agency that focuses less on building rockets and more on nurturing a commercial space industry.
The flights, which could begin as early as 2015, would most likely launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida to the International Space Station. The Obama administration has proposed turning over to private companies the business of taking NASA astronauts to orbit, and Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas won an $18 million contract this year for preliminary development and testing of a capsule that could carry seven passengers.
Current NASA plans call for four space station crew members to go up at a time, which would leave up to three seats available for space tourists. The flights would be the first to give nonprofessional astronauts the chance to go into orbit aboard a spacecraft launched from the United States. Seven earlier space tourists have made visits to the space station, riding in Russian Soyuz capsules.
"We're ready now to start talking to prospective customers," said Eric C. Anderson, cofounder and chairman of Space Adventures, the company that would market the seats for Boeing.
Boeing and Space Adventures have not set a price, although Anderson said it would be competitive with the Soyuz flights, which Space Adventures arranged with the Russian Space Agency. Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, paid about $40 million for a Soyuz ride and an eight-day stay at the space station last year. But the prospects that anyone buying a ticket will get to space on an American vehicle hinge on discussions in Congress about the future of NASA.
As the era of the space shuttle winds Down--two, perhaps three shuttle flights remain--a clash of visions over what should come next has kept the space agency adrift for much of the past year. An authorization bill written by the House Science and Technology Committee to lay out the direction of NASA for the next three years would largely follow the traditional trajectory for human spaceflight. It calls on NASA to build a government-owned rocket for taking astronauts to the space station and then a larger one for missions farther into space.
The competing vision, embodied in President Obama's 2011 budget proposal for NASA, focuses instead on investing in companies like Boeing that want to develop the space equivalent of airlines. NASA would then just buy seats on those rockets to send its astronauts to the International Space Station.
Competition, the thinking goes, would drive down the costs of getting to space, leading to a profitable new American industry and freeing more of NASA's budget for deep-space missions.
Advocates of the free enterprise approach are rallying to block the House version of the NASA authorization bill, which provides only $150 million a year over the next three years for the private-sector space travel initiative, which is known as commercial crew.
Bob Werb, chairman of the Space Frontier Foundation, was blunt in his assessment of the House bill. "I think it's awful," he said. "It's leaving NASA with way more pork than program. I see that as a disaster for the agency. …