SpaceX Success Boosts NASA's Venture With Private Companies

Almost from the time he took over NASA in 2009, Charles F. Bolden Jr., has urged a skeptical Congress to replace the space shuttle with a rocket developed by a private company with the space agency's help.

This image provided by NASA-TV shows the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft after Dragon was grappled by the Canadarm2 robotic arm and connected to the International Space Station, Friday, May 25, 2012. Dragon is scheduled to spend about a week docked with the station before returning to Earth on May 31 for retrieval.

Almost from the time he took over NASA in 2009, Charles F. Bolden Jr., has urged a skeptical Congress to replace the space shuttle with a rocket developed by a private company with the space agency's help.

On Friday, Bolden earned the right to do a little gloating as California-based SpaceX became the first private firm to navigate a spacecraft to the International Space Station.

"Today is, and I'm not overstating this, a day that will go down in history," the former shuttle commander told an enthusiastic audience at the International Space Development Conference.

On either side of him, two large projection screens displayed a slightly delayed feed of the unmanned SpaceX Dragon vehicle slowly approaching the space station. When Bolden announced around 10 a.m. that the space station's robotic arm had grabbed the Dragon, the crowd inside the Grand Hyatt Hotel ballroom, which included former Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, erupted in cheers.

"The debate about our direction is over and we're moving strongly into implementing some very exciting plans," Bolden said. " If you're still wondering if this new era is real, I think the SpaceX success this week should begin to dispel those notions."

But congressional debate over the Commercial Crew Program, which teams NASA with private companies to develop a new taxi to the space station, is far from over.

Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled House adopted a fiscal 2013 spending bill that would provide $500 million for the program -- more than it's getting this fiscal year but considerably less than the $830 million President Barack Obama asked for.

The Democratic-run Senate has yet to finalize its NASA spending bill but a key committee has endorsed $525 million for the program.

House lawmakers also have told the space agency to hurry up and pick one company from the four (SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin) vying for the contract to produce a new rocket. Continuing the competition "presents a significant risk of costly, lengthy delays," according to the House-passed language.

NASA opposes the idea, saying such a move actually would drive up costs in the long run.

In the 10 months since the last shuttle mission ended, the agency has had to answer even larger questions about the direction of the U.S. space program.

Some want NASA to focus its relatively modest resources on "bold" ventures, namely a Mars mission now about two decades from reality. Others question whether it makes sense to spend more than $17 billion a year on space travel, given the government's spiraling debt.

In the short term, the Dragon spacecraft's successful docking on Friday reinvigorated backers of the Commercial Crew program.

"I hope people's doubts have been put to rest," SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk said at news conference.

Other companies also are moving their plans off the drawing boards and into space.

Next week, Sierra Nevada plans to begin test flights of the Dream Chaser, a smaller version of the space shuttle that is the firm's answer to SpaceX's Dragon, according to company Vice President Mark Sirangelo.

"Right now, real companies are building real hardware," said Paul Damphousse, executive director of the National Space Society. "Not PowerPoint charts. Not animation. Real hardware. It's a really, really cool time to be involved in space and it's only going to get better."