With the planned retirement of the workhorse space shuttle planned for 2010, NASA has to find a way to keep the International Space Station supplied with food and equipment. So the agency has announced deals with a couple of civilian companies, Orbital Sciences of Virginia and SpaceX of California.
As envisioned, SpaceX would start flying in 2010 and get as much as $1.6 billion for 12 flights. Orbital Sciences would start in 2011, pocketing $1.9 billion for eight flights.
One minor problem -- neither company has an operational spacecraft that could make deliveries to the space station. NASA's fallback position is to go with a third, as-yet-unnamed, company if one of the winning contractors fails.
There's another possibility that should be considered -- keeping the shuttles and astronauts in flying condition should they be needed, at least for a while. But it's also important, ultimately, to have the commercial sector deeply involved.
A lot of time, money and effort have been sunk into the International Space Station. It has such tremendous potential in the research area and as a platform to initiate more space exploration.
Space exploration is an important program, even a vital necessity. In these times of economic stress, it may look to many like a waste of money, but it isn't. It has a lot to do with the successful future of this country and the world.